Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 4, 2019)
In his synopsis of Air Force One, David Letterman phrased it best: Harrison Ford, the ass-kicking president!
It's such a great "high concept" idea that I'm amazed no one thought it up before Air Force One hit movie screens in 1997. Over the prior decade, we saw multiple variations on the Die Hard theme: Die Hard on a bus, Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard on a train, Die Hard on a boat, Die Hard on a donkey - you name it.
There didn't seem to be many places left to go, so the creators of Air Force One took the concept and gave it a twist. Instead of using a cop or similar character to play the protagonist, let's make it the president!
Actually, the idea of an action hero president wasn't really original, since Independence Day did it a year earlier. However, in that case, the president's role in the plot seemed much less important and he wasn't the focal point of the entire story.
After a summit in Russia, President Marshall (Ford) boards Air Force One to head back to the States. A crew of Russian journalists led by Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) go along for the ride as well.
Except they’re not really members of the press. Instead, they’re loyal to an imprisoned Russian leader, and they manage to take over Air Force One in a violent coup.
They capture much of the president’s crew and family, but Marshall himself manages to avoid the terrorists. Marshall uses the resources at his disposal to save all involved.
As discussed in the liner notes that come with the original DVD, the list of actors who could truly come across as believable as both president and action hero started and ended with one name: Pauly Shore. However, he wasn't available, so they took Harrison Ford.
Okay, that first part isn't true, though the idea seems sound to me. According to the production notes, the producers actually considered making the hero the vice-president since that possibility opened up additional acting options. For an ass-kicking president, they felt that Harrison Ford was the only man for the job.
I have to agree with that point. While I'm sure there are a number of actors who could do well with the role, clearly the producers wanted a "name" actor to play it and I can't think of any notable performers other than Ford who could succeed in the part.
Plenty of guys could play the president or an action hero, but not both. Even Pullman, who did it before, would have been a bust in this role.
Solid casting seems to be a hallmark of films made by Wolfgang Petersen, and Air Force One is no exception. In addition to Ford, we get a cast that includes Glenn Close, Gary Oldman, William H. Macy, Xander Berkeley and Dean Stockwell.
All the actors acquit themselves professionally in their parts, but none other than Ford and Oldman really stand out from the crowd. There's a reason Harrison Ford is possibly the most commercially successful actor ever: what's there to dislike about him?
Gary Oldman also rarely gives less than a good showing in his movies, but that's where the comparisons to Ford end. While Ford has been something of a modern Gary Cooper in his roles, Oldman comes across more like a male Meryl Streep with the wide variety of characters and nationalities he plays.
While he may not completely take over every part he plays, I find Oldman to almost always be very watchable and compelling. He's one of the best actors working today, and he's one of the few "name" actors who can really seem to lose himself in a part. I spend much less time thinking of him as "Gary Oldman" than I do if I watch, say, Jack Nicholson (who I always think of as “Gary Oldman”).
As I mentioned earlier, "A"-list casting is one given of a Wolfgang Petersen film. Another is that while his films are always solidly constructed and quite professional, they rarely transcend the genre to become truly exceptional. His efforts usually provide compelling action and easily maintain an audience's interest for two hours, but I don't feel that any of them ever does anything remarkable enough to merit inclusion with classics of the genre such as Die Hard or Aliens.
Those films were truly special and they influenced many films over the years. While Petersen's movies can be good entertainment, they never go past that to give the audience anything new; they're tremendously well executed and competent, but they lack a spark that could take them to another level.
But this shouldn't be interpreted as a tremendous slight, because seminal movies of the kind listed come along so rarely. At least when you see the name Wolfgang Petersen attached to a film you know it'll be well-done and reasonably compelling, and Air Force One fits that mold well.