MAD: Air Force One
I haven’t seen this film since the Clinton administration. In it, a post Jack Ryan Harrison Ford scowls around the bowels of the most famous plane in the world, trying to work out a way to overcome wicked ex-Soviet terrorist Gary Oldman who wants a despotic Russian leader released from captivity and is prepared to hold the first family hostage to achieve his aims, in a joyless melange of the first two Die Hard movies.
This President kicks off proceedings by changing a speech and improvising America’s new plan to not stand by and let other countries suffer under tyrannical regimes. It is time for the terrorists to be scared. This was only four years until 9/11 when America started seeing Osama Bin Laden lurking in their cereal, and by today, may as well have been delivering the speech to a different planet.
It made me wonder, considering the two good Commander-In-Chief movies, Independence Day and White House Down, why we never got to see a President Schwarzenegger kicking terrorist ass. Had he not gone off to be Governor of California, and had there not been an outside chance that he might one day actively try to defy that “No-Non-American-Born” rule and actually shoot for the Oval Office, we might well have seen that happen.
The core of the film appears to be the very clear ideal *Never, EVER negotiate with terrorists, even when they will execute hostages*. This is ultimately a political theme of incredible weight, requiring a choice between black and white OR shades of grey, in a world that has to be able to accommodate both or the debate is meaningless. It is one to be explored in a far more intricate setting, not one where everything is broad and simplified like this. But in most movie contexts it is simply the backdrop for a lone hero to be the magical element that means the decision never really has to be made. Hell, even Michael Bay’s The Rock does a better job of handling this double-edged sword. Side note, Philip Baker Hall played the Chief Justice in that film and the Attorney General in this. He’s pretty much the same guy both times.
One of the drawbacks of the way they play this game is that Ford works best when he’s a little bit hapless. For all the dignity and determination Indiana Jones operates with, he’s occasionally clumsy and makes mistakes, he’s unlucky and often everything seems wildly stacked against him, but always in an exciting *How the hell is he going to get out of this?* way. John McClane is annoying to his villains, antagonising the antagonists, and when things blow up in his face there are sudden rushes of *Oh SHIT!*. The bulk of Air Force One is Gary Oldman coldly negotiating with Vice President Glenn Close while Ford creeps about a series of very cramped, very limited corridors glancing up and listening, but in no contact with anyone. He has no monologue, he is stoic and desperate at the same time, he is not entertaining. Oldman is cold-blooded and fanatical, which is also not entertaining.
Since they can’t make the president hapless or hanging on by the skin of his teeth what they can do is up the internal conflict. Take that central premise of negotiating with terrorists, make his black and white stance on it known at the beginning and then have that seriously challenged by having his family be the hostages. Put that resolve to the test.
This is not the case. His stance never changes, it never develops or heightens, his eventual conclusion is *Feign negotiation long enough to cut yourself free with a shard of glass and then cease negotiations with a fight!* And what fights they are, these look like two deputy headmasters grappling over the last Yorkie bar in the teacher’s lounge. It’s never not comical, and it’s never intentionally so.
Things are somewhat helped by Jerry Goldsmith, who provides a decent, if patchy and overblown score. It’s all rousing brass and the marching drums, instrumentation that makes us think of what Washington at its best can be. However, it doesn’t contain a memorable theme to hum on the way out. They also get rid of Oldman out of the plane’s arse far too early. Imagine if Hans had been dispatched twenty minutes before Die Hard wrapped and McClane ended up having to throw Marco from the top of Nakatomi Plaza. Remember Marco? No? Well you won’t remember this random inside man either. Utterly bungled climax, symptomatic of the mismanaged whole.
You can also relax in the surefire knowledge that if the current President was put in this position then if he wasn’t cowering in his escape pod on his way down to a field of wheat within ten seconds of the first shots being fired like some corpulent, toilet-troll he would be negotiating with terrorists in a trice and giving them everything they want, whilst somehow declaring himself the winner. At the very best… he’s Ellis.
“Vladimir, bubby, I’m your orange knight!”