Welcome to 1997! Bill Clinton is the real-life president, Hillary is dutifully performing her First Lady tasks, we have yet to experience the era of Marvel’s 500 Avengers flicks, The Matrix will not be released for another two years, Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford are our highest-paid movie stars, and the world is rocking its pre-9/11 vibe. Enter modern action-classic Air Force One.
- Air Force One’s ranking on the Oldometer: 6/10
- Gary Oldman character quality: Well, Ivan Kurshonov is a Heavy, in the style of many James Bond villains, and his aspirations are high (take down America!). He has no qualms about threatening the lives of little girls, either. Still, while the script doesn’t attempt to humanize Ivan, exactly, he’s hardly a one-note bad guy, and Oldman is mesmerizing enough to help support Ford in shouldering the movie, which is unusual for a baddie in a movie of this scale.
- Does Gary die in this one? Yes! And how! Die, Ivan! Die!!
There’s almost too much to say about this masterpiece of a thriller, so I’m going to break it down.
The Glorious Action President That We All Wanted in the 90’s (and sometimes secretly still want)
This POTUS is everything a movie POTUS should be. His party affiliation is never mentioned, though apparently both parties have tried to claim him since the movie’s release (the action of a Republican with the values of a Democrat! The youth and vigor of a Democrat with the sturdy staunchness of a Republican! The family values of a Republican with the female VP of a Democrat!).
Watch out. President Harrison Ford is a True American, and that means he does what he wants. Near the beginning of the movie he stands to give Russia (and the world!) a pre-written speech, but clearly changes his mind about what he really wants to say, and instead puts his foot down and tells everyone what’s really on his mind. This is how it’s going to go down, guys: we’re gonna take care of this whole terrorist problem and we’re going to do it with zeal and backbone. Don’t even think about messing with us.
That’s basically the gist.
Later, his advisor-people make tut-tutting noises at him, telling him that was much too hardy of a speech and that he should have cleared that with everyone. Don’t go making promises you can’t keep, Prez. To this, POTUS is like “lol.”
He DOES NOT NEGOTIATE WITH TERRORISTS. He puts his life on the line to protect his family and his staff. He doesn’t believe in compromising his stance, even when he is being attacked by evil Russian hijackers. He can handle a gun, he can make and carry out a plan of extreme cunning (kinda), he can use an airplane cell to phone home.
He can also learn how to stand up to a threat that perhaps many of those in power will never have to deal with. That’s where Air Force One says something kind of interesting: it’s all well and good for the US Government to make calls concerning life and death and negotiation when they’re at home in their easy chairs, surrounded by bodyguards and security. It’s quite another thing to look your aggressor in the eye and know that he could kill you or those you value most at any second. The best part? Harrison comes through, proving that he can Walk The Walk. You go, Prez.
He’s Harrison Ford.
He has that little smirk and he can fly a giant flying thing HAN SOLO I KNEW IT WAS YOU I KNEW IT WAS YOU THE WHOLE TIME
The Easy-To-Hate Russian (Gary)
Ivan is an Awesome Villain
We all know this. By this time, Oldman had tried the lead actor thing and it didn’t quite work out for him. Whether or not this was the result of genuine audience/studio reaction, Oldman’s own career choices, or complications due to his personal life (this was one of the first movies he did after swearing off alcohol and joining AA), who can say. What IS clear is that his passionate, “out there” and off-the-wall performances had finally fully solidified him as The Bad Guy-Guy, and Ivan Kurshonov is probably the most accessible, well-known of that line up. This is signature villain we have here, and signature 90’s Gary.
His Accent Is The Best
Ivan, first appearing in disguise as a nebbish reporter in order to board (we know he is supposed to be nebbish because he sports an ill-fitting, grey “dad sweater” and smiles shyly at the assistant who gives him a tour of the plane– whom he will later shoot in the head, by the way) only to shed that disguise instantly as he goes Full Force Bad, utters his threats of terrorism in the most effective Russian accent I have ever heard from a non-Russian actor. The accent remains consistent and intact throughout the film, causing most casual viewers (see: my parents) to assume that “that Russian guy” in Air Force One was actually totally from Russia, guys.
The moment I figured out the truth was when I realized that both Ivan and Zorg from The Fifth Element were the same guy, and my brain exploded. I’ve been a fan ever since.
He Knows His Audience
Air Force One is a BIG MOVIE, and Oldman appears to understand this as well as Ford did. He also seems to understand that this is, without doubt, Ford’s movie, so he plays Ivan broadly, full of sneering and outbursts and blind determination. His little monologue about the Mother Russia that he wants to see “rise again” is straight-up classic villain-speak, and while he’s limited from doing what Gary Oldman does best (see: getting real weird) he seems content with this. Sometimes I think it’s a larger challenge than anything for a truly talented person to reign themselves in, to give the performance of simplicity that a script calls for, despite the fact that they can do so much more. That’s what Oldman does here, and it’s great, proving that, once again, his range is unbounded.
Glenn Close as The Vice President of the US is a Badass
The VP is the One Making “Real” Decisions Here
Glenn, safely on the ground in DC, is allowed to share screentime with the biggest box-office draw of his day (Ford), while her VP communicates with the Prez, attempts to temporarily pacify the Russian, and undergoes numerous white-knuckled discussions with her advisors. What responsibility, exactly, DOES a VP have to shoulder in such an unusual and dire circumstance? At the start of the story, Glenn doesn’t even know if Harrison is alive, and she finds herself pulled to and fro between asking herself What Would Harrison Do and being told what she has no choice to do by the military and others who consider themselves (and may well be) far more qualified to make decisions about how to handle the peril in the air. Peril in the Air, incidentally, was the first working title for this movie. In the 1950’s.
As I watch this movie now, in 2016 at my age of 28, Glenn Close’s performance is my favorite part. While none of her scenes involve guns, bombs, or being in physical danger herself, seeing the alert, wise (and clearly stressed) VP labor over what to do as an outrageous twist develops every few minutes is the most genuine element in a movie that is not made to be taken entirely seriously.
This is also the first movie (that I can think of) to depict a woman in this high office of US government, and Glenn sells it. She has so much poise, credibility, and moral concern that she makes me wish, in an election year so fraught with shady, low-brow antics, that this fictional VP were really an option; that maybe one of our leaders could be this trustworthy. It’s appropriate that Glenn is the one of two heroes who finds herself planted firmly on American soil– she is the one who grounds the story, while the madness rotates around her.
William H. Macy Means Well
William H. Macy is in this movie. You forgot about him, didn’t you? So did I. He plays the sensitive Major Caldwell, who really doesn’t do much except grimace and hope that things turn out all right. His main job is to be the worried voice of reason: “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” “Don’t hurt them!” “Mr. President, you have to get off of this plane before it goes down in flames!” Don’t take the guy for granted, though, because he’s the one who helps the Prez fly the plane to safety in the end (more on that in a moment). He dies, though. At least, I think he does. I don’t really remember.
Just go watch him in Fargo.
That Girl from The Little Princess is Here!
The sweet redhead from The Little Princess pops up here as POTUS’s teenage daughter. She’s not a tremendous actress, but I always liked her, and her scenes with Gary are actually pretty good.
Trivia: This actress, Liesel Matthews, is a Hyatt Hotel heiress, has millions of dollars, and hasn’t worked in movies since 2000. Also, the director of the super green and lush Little Princess was Alfonso Cuarón, who also directed Gary in the super green and not-so-lush Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. The more you know.
That Super 90’s Thriller Score
I love the music in Air Force One, it is absolutely the pinnacle of what 90’s thrillers sounded like. Lots of regal, soaring (heh heh) tunes to highlight the Prez’s triumphs, but oh, oh so many grand BUM BUM BUMs to indicate great danger. Also, plenty of cautious doo-doo-doo-DOO-doo’s to signal that President Ford is not out of the woods yet.
The POTUS is Kind of an Arrogant Gambler of American Lives
Despite my obvious affection for this box office giant, there are some elements of Air Force One that, shockingly, do not stand up to scrutiny today. Several Secret Servicemen (say that five times fast) willingly sacrifice their lives while they usher the POTUS to what they assume is his escape from the plane when it falls under attack. On the ground, poor Glenn Close is pulling her amazing blonde bobbed hair out in frustration as America waits to hear from their leader. Word finally arrives… from an iffy brick of a cellphone in the sky.
The president is fine! But he’s, you know, on a plane with terrorists. He appreciates your sacrifice, and we’re glad he’s there to look out for those poor folk on the plane, but this shows a major disregard for his presidential duties. Also, if he wound up dead (which he never would, of course, but still) then everyone would be screwed. It takes alot of arrogance to go through with that plan, especially at the expense of American lives.
That Ending, Though.
The movie should have wrapped up very soon after the climatic death of Ivan. It has it all– drama, violence, Crying First Lady, snappy catchphrase (we all know it by heart, right?). The Russian is choked to death by the release of his own parachute, by the very manly American hands of the Prez. Yay!
But wait. Now we have about 15 more minutes of action and, surprisingly, very bad CGI as Mr. President is forced to fly his plane (thank goodness he fares better at this than real-life Harrison Ford), grit his teeth as he fends off enemy air attacks (just adding insult to injury at this point), get EVERYONE remaining off the plane safely via a zipline-sort-of-situation, and THEN confront his betrayer. Oh. Yeah, this betrayer is a dude on AFO staff whom we’ve all forgotten about at this point because he’s played by a virtually faceless actor that I dare you to name. Naturally, POTUS gets off just in time for Air Force One to crash, in a blaze of lame, into the sea.
The Air Force One Legacy
Apparently, at some point in his presidential campaign, Donald Trump loudly praised Air Force One as one of his favorite movies, which made all of us like it quite a bit less. Of COURSE Trump loves Air Force One, it’s loud and dumb at times and it turns the POTUS into an action hero who doesn’t really do a lot of president-type stuff except for killin’ baddies. Of COURSE that’s what being the President is all about.
Harrison Ford was quick to pipe up on the subject, remarking to the press that all should be aware that Air Force One, surprise, is actually just a movie.
The Orange One aside, this movie really is beloved for the exact reason that Ford highlighted. Air Force One was one of the last of its kind– the big, violent-but-not-explicitly-so, broad, family values-oriented action movie that not only kept us on our toes but made us jump to our feet cheering at the end because of its patriotic themes. It boasted big stars (back when that was all you needed to really open a movie), big money, and escapism that was down-to-earth enough that one didn’t feel as though they were indulging in complete fantasy. It was just a movie.
With the cinemascape shifting so much these days, modern audiences have become somewhat cynical. We have grown accustomed to high-concept movies, we are too sharp and self-aware to cow-tow to Capra-esque messages about loving our country, we know when we are being pitched to. We only love Harrison Ford for nostalgic reasons. I include myself in this group; it is now just not enough to be offered Air Force One. I demand complex, compelling characters that dwell in the grey of morality, I want a satisfying yet unpredictable plot, I want strong female leads, I want surprising villains, I want witty banter that perhaps only Aaron Sorkin can give me, and I really, really don’t want to be spoon-fed The Moral Of The Story.
But the thing is, I DO love Air Force One. I think that’s due to the fact that even though I don’t want an AFO Part II anytime soon, I miss the days when something as simple and transparent as Harrison Ford saving his family (AND AMERICA) from the clutches of Evil Gary The Russian was enough to satisfy me (and America). Those were good times.