Film and TV

Hell to the Chief

Not satisfied with the president you have? Here's Harrison Ford's James Marshall in Air Force One--Vietnam War hero, straight as a ramrod, devoted husband and father. We first see him delivering a speech before a roomful of Russian dignitaries. Departing from the prepared, wishy-washy text, Mr. President fire-breathes his new policy: "The United States will no longer tolerate terrorists." When his security advisor cautions that "the Allies are going to come back at us for not being consulted," Marshall intones, "It's the right thing to do, and you know it."

It's more than a little depressing that the leaders of the free world are starting to sound like a pack of CEOs. It's even more depressing that the filmmakers apparently think they ought to sound this way.

A lot of presidents or ex-prezzes have been lining up in the movies lately. There was Michael Douglas's single-dad Democrat in The American President--the Leader of the Free World as Mr. Nice Guy. Independence Day had Bill Pullman as a Vietnam hero--sound familiar?--who combats not measly earthbound terrorists but intergalactic terrorists. (If he ran against James Marshall, his slogan could be: "He gave you the world, I give you the universe.")

Absolute Power had Gene Hackman as a sadistic philanderer who cavorted while the Secret Service seethed. Mars Attacks! gave us Jack Nicholson as President Eyebrows. My Fellow Americans featured Jack Lemmon and James Garner as Grumpy Old Ex-Presidents. Contact, courtesy of some actual, out-of-context press-conference clips, serves up Bill Clinton himself.

What to make of this presidential pileup? It can't all be explained by public disaffection with Clinton. It may just be one of those Hollywood things--like the Jane Austen feeding frenzy that had industry observers scouring their brainpans for reasons why. (Two words: public domain.)

And yet the yin and yang of these presidential caricatures is clear-cut: We're offered either a family-values do-gooder hero or a dirtbag. It's not just Clinton who provokes popular cynicism right now; it's the office itself. It's difficult, for example, to imagine Gene Hackman's sado-lech in Absolute Power making it to the screens in a mainstream movie during even the Nixon/ Watergate era. And the recent uproar from the White House about the use of Clinton press-conference clips in Contact--where he appears to be acting in the movie while talking about space aliens--obscures the central point: Hollywood doesn't feel it needs to ask the White House for authorization.

It answers to a higher power--Robert Zemeckis, for example, or Steven Spielberg or Brad Pitt. Bill Clinton would have been better off if he had agreed to act in Contact. His stock might have risen--especially if business is boffo.

If he wanted it, Harrison Ford probably could be the real president of the United States. But why bother, when he's so much more powerful playing a president in the movies? He wouldn't get my vote, though--he's too lockjawed, too humorlessly intense. I would have voted for Ford in his Han Solo days, but he's become a placard for rectitude in movie after movie--the giant Air Force One billboards of him looking powerfully "concerned" are about as emotive as his performance.

But rectitude isn't enough these days. James Marshall cannot simply be a man of righteousness and conscience; he must also do things like run his own one-man anti-terrorist operation inside the captured Air Force One. He must hang off the edge of the plane James Bond-style. Truly, here is a president we can all be proud of.

It would have been funnier, of course, if the film had featured some Reagan-like codger creaking his way to victory. But like its star, Air Force One is distinctly short on humor. Wolfgang Petersen, who directed from a howler-infested script by Andrew W. Marlowe, seems to think he's still doing Das Boot--lots of heavy-duty grimacing in tight enclosures. (My favorite howler: Defense Secretary Dean Stockwell fumes, "Dammit, nobody does this to the President of the United States!") Everybody in this movie, not just Ford, seems to be afflicted with Dutch elm disease--the rot of woodenness is everywhere.

The plot is set in motion when a Russian-American commando raid in Kazakhstan results in the capture of a renegade Russian tyrant, General Radek (played by Das Boot's Jurgen Prochnow). In retaliation, Radek loyalist Korshunov (Gary Oldman) and his team infiltrate the supposedly uninfiltratable Air Force One to hold the president hostage in exchange for Radek's release. But Marshall's wife (Wendy Crewson) and daughter (Liesel Matthews) are on board, and even though he's supposed to be trundled out of harm's way in an airborne pod, he surreptitiously stays behind. Like any good CEO--or, come to think of it, like Bruce Willis in Die Hard or Nicolas Cage in Con Air--he realizes you get the best results by working from within.

Most of the film is taken up with sweaty-palm negotiations between the Pentagon and Korshunov. But we are never in doubt that Harrison Ford--I mean, the president--will escape being blown to bits, so the only suspense is in the details of his survival. And having Marshall page through an owner's manual to figure out how to use a cellular phone just doesn't cut it. Neither does the bit about calling the White House and getting mistaken for a crank. Or the standard shoot-'em-up-hide-and-seek stuff that functions as filler until we get to the real meat and potatoes: Will the president give in to terrorists or sacrifice his family? One guess.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment about Air Force One is how reined-in Oldman is. Since he's a Russian terrorist, one might reasonably expect him to be over the top of the top, but his ham quotient is alarmingly low. Apparently we're meant to regard Korshunov as a worthy adversary to the president. We're even supposed to feel this lunatic's pain when he bemoans the loss of his beloved Mother Russia to "gangsters and prostitutes."

But it's not necessary for us to feel Korshunov's pain. We want the kick of his dementia, his sleaze. When he tells Marshall's daughter that her father is just as much a murderer as he is, he's not nearly as entertaining as when he asks the vice president--Glenn Close at her most imperially ponderous--if her blouse is wet. One way or another, a good movie villain should always make the heroine moist.

The implication in Air Force One is that terrorism is a foreign-borne virus. If you want to get deep-dish about it, you could even argue that the film alleviates our helplessness in the face of the Timothy McVeighs and the Ted Kaczynskis by refashioning them as funny-accented Reds. But even if Air Force One were better, I don't think it could escape a basic problem: Like it or not, we can't go back to the old true-blue movie days when America stands tall against the commies. It's too antique, too camp. And when filmmakers try to straightfacedly assume that posture, they just seem foolish. (Mess that it was, at least The Saint had the sense to play its neo-commie stuff for black comedy.)

The end of the Cold War has had a chilling effect on Hollywood. With the Russkies out of the way, the studios have been flailing about trying to come up with a reasonable facsimile. But the PC police are everywhere: The Arabs didn't work out; neither did the Chinese. Space aliens are back in a big way, but they're otherworldly. So it's back to the commies--and the return engagement is kind of embarrassing. Is Hollywood so lacking in ideas that it can't even come up with new people to hate?

Air Force One.
Screenplay by Andrew W. Marlowe. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. With Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Dean Stockwell, Glenn Close, Liesel Matthews, Wendy Crewson, Elya Baskin, William H. Macy and Jurgen Prochnow.

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Peter Rainer