A is for… Air Force One
It originally hadn’t occurred to me to do Air Force One for this site because I’d seen it many times when I was a teenager, and didn’t remember it quite fitting my (admittedly broad) model. But I kept seeing it on Amazon, and also remembered that Andrew Divoff (of Interceptor fame) plays a terrorist, and I figured that I could round out a nice little trio of ‘films with airplanes that also have dogfights,’ (after Interceptor and The Zone), and bring my list back around to movies my readers might have actually seen (the last of which I’m guessing was XXX, and isn’t that a sad little nugget?).
Thus, I sat down for Air Force One, a movie I haven’t seen in a long time, but had seen many times in high school. I enjoyed it a lot, and realized it fits this site better than I remembered, even if it is a little ‘Hollywoody,’ for lack of a better term.
Air Force One, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, opens on American soldiers raiding a military base in Kazakhstan, and the movie informs the viewer that Kazakhstan was formerly part of Russia. It’s bizarre to think that people wouldn’t know that, but Kazakhstan had been an independent country for only a few years at the time the movie was made, so they probably wouldn’t have at that time. Anyway, the American soldiers arrest General Radek (Jurgen Prochnow, who I’m now realizing played the villain Phillips in Interceptor), and the film jumps to United States President Jim Marshall (Harrison Ford) receiving an honor for his work catching Radek. He then gives a rousing speech about how the US will no longer negotiate with terrorists, and will no longer sit idle while they terrorize.
Cut to Air Force One being boarded by the President, half of his cabinet, his family, and a news crew. Of course it’s not long before the news crew is revealed to be a group of terrorists led by Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman), who take over Air Force One in order to have Radek released, and they are secretly aided by a Secret Service Agent (Gibbs, played by Xander Berkeley) who is loyal to Radek. The President is shoved into the escape pod, but of course instead of leaving the plane, he stays aboard to save his family.
The rest of the film is a “Die Hard on a Plane” sort of thriller where Marshall tries to outwit Ivan, even as more hostages get killed as the Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) tries to meet Ivan’s demands, or at least pretend to meet them. Marshall fights off a number of Ivan’s men, and eventually makes it to the conference room where the hostages are being held. They come up with a plan to parachute out of Air Force One, and most of them make it. However, Ivan had smartly separated Marshall’s family (wife Grace and daughter Alice, played by Wendy Crewson and Liesel Matthews, respectively), so Marshall has to continue fighting to find them.
Marshall is ultimately taken, and finally agrees to free Radek when Ivan threatens to kill Alice. The final showdown occurs between Ivan and Marshall at the cargo area of the plane when Ivan tries to escape and threatens Grace. Marshall is able to fight him and strangle him with a strap and the force of an open parachute. So, all is well, and everyone is safe.
Except not, because when Marshall shot and killed Ivan’s second in command, Kolchak (Elya Baskin), he killed the only person who knew how to fly the plane. The rest of the movie is almost a typical “Can anyone fly this plane?” disaster movie, as Marshall and one of the officers, Major Caldwell (William H. Macy), have to try to fly the plane. But wait, there’s a dogfight between Kazakhstani militants loyal to Radek (who was killed as he tried to escape prison), and US fighter jets sent to guide Air Force One.
In the dogfight, Air Force One is badly damaged, to the point where attempting to land would prove fatal. A so-crazy-it-just-might-work zipline-style rescue mission is concocted, and another military aircraft connects a cable between itself and AIr Force One to provide a means to get the remaining passengers off of Air Force One. It is only when there is one last strap to slide down and there is still Marshall, Gibbs, and Caldwell to transport that Gibbs reveals that he was the the traitor all along. Sadly, he shoots Caldwell, and then he and Marshall fight over the strap. Marshall of course is victorious, and as Air Force One crashes into the sea Marshall flies along behind it on the cable that had connected the planes. It’s a harrowing few minutes, but of course he is rescued, and everyone can celebrate.
On to the criteria!
A is for… Accents
Obviously, Ivan and his men are from Kazakhstan, so they have a Russian accent. Here is just one film in their careers where Gary Oldman and Andrew Divoff are able to showcase their dialect and language talents.
B is for… Bad Guys
General Radek is described as a militant Kazakhstani soldier who wants to overthrow the new government and return to Communist roots.
Ivan is a Radek supporter, and takes the President’s plane hostage in order to secure Radek’s release from prison. Ivan is depicted as arrogant and methodical, and is also a zealot trying to rid his country of western influence, and the “infection [called] freedom.” Oddly, he smokes on the plane, which is just a terrible idea.
Gibbs is Ivan’s inside man on Air Force One, who kills other Secret Service agents and unlocks the weapons locker so Ivan and his men can get at the guns. Gibbs has any number of chances to demonstrate his disloyalty to Marshall, but supports him up until the very last second when only one of them can survive. Ironically, had he come out as a traitor earlier, Marshall might have kept him prisoner–alive–instead of killing him (albeit indirectly). No reason for his treason is given.
C is for… Chases
Again, with a film that takes place mostly on an airplane, it’s a little hard to have a chase scene, but Radek supporters do take off after Air Force One in MiGs. It’s actually a fairly harrowing sequence, considering Air Force One is being piloted by two guys who have no idea what they’re doing, and the Radek supporters are highly angry. Fortunately American fighters get to Air Force One before it is shot down.
D is for… Damsels
Marshall’s main motivating force in the film, even above his duty to his cabinet and country, are to his wife Grace and his daughter Alice. Grace is a fairly typical damsel in distress at first, kind of sitting there crying, but during the final showdown with Ivan she keeps insisting Radek not be released, and then when Ivan has a gun to her head, she knocks it out of the way long enough for Marshall to fight him. She also holds a gun on them while they fight, just in case she gets a clear shot. After Marshall kills Ivan, he and Grace embrace and kiss, and she notably pushes him away and tells him to make sure Radek doesn’t escape. It’s great she can put international security in front of reconnecting with her husband, considering all he went through to try to make sure Radek wasn’t released. To quote Seth Gecko (George Clooney) in From Dusk Till Dawn, “Fight now, cry later!”
Alice is described as being twelve years old and eager to grow up, and she does stand up to Ivan as much as she can while tied up.
Marshall’s VP is Kathryn Bennet, who is of course depicted as fierce and no-nonsense, because otherwise she shouldn’t be Vice President. One of her attributes that makes her such a good partner for Marshall is of course that she has unwavering faith in his abilities as a leader, and does everything she can to support him from thousands of miles away while he’s fighting for his life on Air Force One.
E is for… Explosions
In another tiny connection to Interceptor, Air Force One must be refueled in midair. Unfortunately the cargo bay door, when it opens for the parachuters, sends an alert to the cockpit, and Ivan realizes that his hostages are escaping. When he has Kolchak pull away from the fueler, sparks fly from the broken equipment, and the tanker is quickly engulfed and explodes.
During the dogfight, Air Force One’s fourth engine is caught by machine gun fire and explodes.
Three MiGs are shot down by American fighters, and boy, do those things go up like they’re made of C-4.
Halo 2, one of the American fighters, sacrifices himself rather than let a missile hit Air Force One.
When Air Force One crashes into the water and breaks into pieces, it does not explode in a fireball like a person might expect. Either the producers wanted Air Force One’s final moments to be visible as it smashes into pieces, or they remembered that Air Force One was low on fuel, so it blowing up wouldn’t make much sense.
F is for… Flashbacks
No flashbacks; the film basically takes place over the span of a few hours, with no backwards storytelling.
G is for… Guns
Check out full details at the IMFDB.
The film opens with parachuting soldiers firing silenced guns at Radek’s men.
There are tons of little firefights aboard Air Force one, but they are notable because the terrorists are using the guns that were already aboard Air Force One, because as the Secretary of Defense (Dean Stockwell) explains, there is no way to actually get guns aboard the plane.
It’s just a little unbelievable that so many guns would be used aboard an airplane. Yes, Air Force One is bullet resistant, but it’s still an airplane flying at 30,000 feet in the air. You’d think that Ivan would want to minimize the chance of someone puncturing the fuselage.
H is for… Helicopters
All of the helicopters in the film are military, and include the one that takes Radek away from his compound, and the one that brings VP Bennett to the White House.
I is for… Improvisation
Ivan shoots at C-4 on the door handle in order to break into the cockpit.
Marshall turns up the volume on the TV to get a thug’s attention.
When cornered by the bathrooms, Marshall, rather than hide in them, tricks the thugs into thinking he’s in them, when he’s really riding the galley’s elevator down to the supply area.
Knowing he needs more at his disposal than whatever weapons he can find lying around, Marshall digs through people’s luggage, though it’s unclear whether he’s specifically looking for a phone, or is simply looking for anything that might prove useful. He seems to stop after he finds the phone.
Marshall figures out that he might be able to force the plane to land by dumping the fuel.
A thug, unable to get into the locked cargo bay when the hostages are escaping, uses a canister as an explosive (by shooting it) in order to get the door open.
Marshall, when his hands are bound by duct tape, uses broken glass to cut the tape.
J is for… Jumping Through Solid Objects
Marshall smashes Divoff’s character’s head through the glass door of a refrigerator. (Divoff’s character is named Boris Bazylev, but I don’t think he’s called that in the movie.)
K is for… Kill Count
After a while it’s hard to tell how many thugs Marshall is able to take down because there are so many gunfights, but he very clearly kills the thug outside the conference room when he puts him in a sleeper hold, and Kolchak when he shoots him in the head.
L is for… Limitations
You’d think being trapped on an airplane hijacked by terrorists would really be a limitation, but by being able to reach the White House with a cell phone, and by being able to reach his staff on the plane, Marshall really isn’t in all that terrible of a position. Relatively.
One problem is that on the ground, the Secretary of Defense says there are no “airborne scenarios” if Air Force One is hijacked, which seems crazy. Even Bennett asks if it really is that easy to take the plane, which clearly it is, so why aren’t there any scenarios? Scrambling for possible scenarios given the inherent limitations is somewhat reminiscent of the scene in Apollo 13 when a tub of equipment is dumped on a table and the scientists are told to figure something out. The difference is that in Apollo 13 they do figure something out, while in Air Force One the Secretary of Defense says all the scenarios are terrible.
Perhaps Marshall’s biggest hindrance is that his family is on board; even the Secretary of Defense tells Bennett that Marshall is acting as a husband and father, not a President. His is not thinking as clearly as he might if he didn’t have a personal stake in the outcome.
M is for… Motivation
Ivan’s motivation is to free General Radek because he wants Kazakhstan back under communist rule.
Marshall of course wants to save his family and his staff, and also his reputation, the one he just established about not negotiating with terrorists.
N is for… Negotiation
It is said several times throughout the film that the President will not negotiate, and Marshall stands pretty firmly on that tenet until Ivan has a gun to his daughter’s head.
Ivan’s initial tactic to get Radek released is to tell Bennett that he will execute a hostage every half an hour until Radek is released.
The Secretary of Defense describes Ivan as a zealot who will be tough to negotiate with, and that the only thing that can be done is to wear him down.
Vice President Bennett tries to negotiate with Russian President Petrov (Alan Woolf) in order to get Radek released so that the Americans can apprehend him as soon as possible, but Petrov says he’d only do it if he could guarantee Marshall is still alive, but no one yet knows of his whereabouts at that time.
When the Security Advisor (Tom Everett) is killed, after trying to explain to Ivan that the Vice President can’t actually do anything and if he weren’t on the plane he’d be in charge, Ivan explains to Bennett that the advisor is a very good negotiator, and that he bought everyone an extra half hour when he shoots him.
After Marshall dumps the fuel, Ivan he tells Bennett that he will kill one hostage every minute until the plane crashes or it gets refueled.
Ivan explains that once Air Force One crosses into Kazakhstan, the American fighters must turn around, and if they violate Kazakhstani airspace, he will execute a member of the first family.
After Radek is in the process of getting released, Ivan tells Marshall that if anything happens to Radek, he will kill his wife.
O is for… One Liners
Marshall, after being told the Russian was a nice touch to his speech: Tell my mother. She wanted me to study French.
Press Secretary Melanie Mitchell (Donna Bullock): I told them you’d give them a soundbite about life in the White House.
Marshall: There is no life in the White House.
Secretary of Defense: I’m in charge here.
Bennett: Seems to me they’re in charge.
Marshall, to the communications woman (Messiri Freeman) who comes up with the idea of the fax machine: If this works, you get to be Postmaster General.
Marshall: Have you no honor?
Ivan: I’ll count to five.
Grace: You said you were going to release us.
Ivan: Forgive me, I lied.
Marshall: Get off my plane!
P is for… Profession
Marshall is obviously the President of the United States of America, and is one of those with formal combat experience, specifically as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He has also flown small planes. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service.
Marshall is depicted as a man who does what should be done, not necessarily the safe thing. He has no intention of giving up Radek until it’s his daughter who is directly threatened.
Q is for… Quagmire
Towards the end, when Ivan has the Marshall family tied up, and knows he has all the control, Marshall really would be in a quagmire. ….except the viewer knows he has the broken glass and will be able to cut through his bindings.
All things considered, Marshall really does have a lot of control of the situation compared to other characters who have been in similar situations.
R is for… Reality, or Suspension of Disbelief
Like Bennett, I’m wondering if it’s really that easy to hijack Air Force One. To quote Judd Hirsch in Independence Day, “It’s Air Force One, for crying out loud.” There have got to be more countermeasures against terrorism when it comes to, as Melanie Mitchell says, an aircraft that can run a war if it has to.
The zip line rescue at the end seems insane. Beyond it being terrifying, those cables and the brackets they clip to have to be pretty darn strong to stand up to the wind as the planes move.
S is for… Sidekicks
Marshall has various sidekicks, but they are all relatively small roles, not truly defined sidekick counterparts.
Major Caldwell is perhaps the most prominent one, because it is his idea to parachute out of the cargo hold, he is the one with the gun who backs up Gibbs to ensure the thug doesn’t yell to Ivan that the hostages are leaving, and he also helps Marshall copilot Air Force One after Ivan and his men are dead. It’s upsetting when he dies, especially because it happens after he insists Marshall finally get off the plane.
The Chief of Staff (Paul Guilfoyle) takes a bullet for Marshall during the final scuffle, though he seems to live at the end.
Bennett is Marshall’s only true ally on the ground, because she seems to be the only one who doesn’t think Marshall is compromised by the circumstances of the mission.
T is for… Technology
In order to get aboard Air Force One, the news team must have their thumbprints read by a laptop.
Marshall finds a cell phone in someone’s luggage, but he has to look through the manual to use it. It does seem strange that what appears to be a regular phone can reach all the way to the White House while it’s above eastern Europe, at least for 1997.
U is for… Unexpected Romance
Because Marshall is happily married, there is no out-of-left-field romance, though Grace gets extra points for repeatedly telling Marshall that the mission/his policy/Radek comes first, not her. It’s great when she pushes him away after their initial liplock when Ivan is killed; she knows what’s important, and when the proper time is for romance.
V is for… Vehicles as Weapons
Other than the various fighter jets having missiles, and Air Force One having defenses, there really aren’t vehicles being used in order to hurt people or manipulate the situation.
W is for… Winning
After Marshall frees himself from the tape and kills Kolchak, Ivan drags Grace to the cargo bay, and throws out all of the parachutes, basically condemning everyone aboard to die, because Air Force One can’t land without someone to land it. Ivan holds a gun to her head, but Grace knocks it away, which gives Marshall enough time to pounce on him. The two get in a scuffle, as Grace holds a machine gun on them, and Marshall is eventually able to wrap a secured strap around Ivan’s neck. He pulls the ripcord on the parachute Ivan is wearing, which pulls Ivan backwards, and the strap around his neck snaps his neck. Marshall cuts/releases the strap, and Ivan floats away in the parachute, dead.
Marshall and Caldwell then get walked through how to fly and land the plane, but Kazakhstani MiGs engage them in aerial combat, and before the American fighters can chase them off, Air Force One is damaged too badly to land. The zip line rescue is attempted, but Air Force One can’t stay in the air quite long enough for everyone to be rescued according to (the hastily concocted) plan. This is when Gibbs finally reveals that he was Ivan’s inside man, and throws the parajumper assigned to rescue Marshall out of the plane, and shoots Caldwell. Gibbs and Marshall struggle over the remaining strap, but ultimately Marshall’s hand-to-hand is better, and he is able to attach his carabiners and get hooked to the strap. Of course, the anchor for the strap breaks off of Air Force One, so Marshall flies along behind the rescue plane (Liberty 2-4) while Gibbs moans from the doorway as Air Force One crashes into the water and smashes to pieces.
Of course, Marshall is eventually pulled into Liberty 2-4, which changes its call sign to Air Force One.
X is for… X-Rays, or Maybe You Should See a Doctor
Perhaps it’s because Marshall is wearing a suit the whole time, or perhaps it’s because of the limited fighting room aboard the plane, or maybe because he’s just that good, other than a few bruises on his head and his cut-up hands from the glass he used to cut his bindings, Marshall is pretty good. No broken bones or massive bleeding cuts. It’s the Chief of Staff who was shot in the chest and who probably wouldn’t have lived in the real world.
Y is for… Yesterday’s Problem Becomes Today’s Problem
If Marshall hadn’t been so vocal about his new foreign policy, Ivan might not have been so determined to hijack his plane. If the Americans hadn’t imprisoned a communist general, Ivan might not have had any motivation to hijack the plane at all. But then there wouldn’t be a movie, either, or it would be a more standard “for the money” motivation.
Z is for… Zone, In The
Marshall looks the most at home when he’s engaged in a firefight. He looks comfortable holding machine guns, and doesn’t have a problem with using them (once the stakes are clearly outlined to him).
Air Force One seems to not be a outstandingly-rated film, at least with respect to its rating on the IMDb, but it sure is a lot of fun. It has a lot of really good elements, including a dashing, if serious, protagonist, an intense and vicious antagonist, and the sense of adventure, limitation, and danger inherent in a film that takes place predominantly on an airplane. It’s maybe a little schmaltzy at times, like with the Postmaster General line, but it’s got heart, what with the first family becoming the main target. It’s got more action that I remembered, and enough real-world politics to be relevant.
I’m glad I decided to rewatch it for this site. It’s actually the first movie I’ve reviewed that I’d seen before since Sudden Death. I think having watched a film before lessens my criticisms of a film, while watching a film for the first time means I have a more balanced viewpoint on it.
Speaking of criticisms… There is absolutely no way a film would get made today with nothing happening during the opening credits. The majority of the opening credits happen over a black screen while music–albeit pretty music–plays. Those two minutes seem to take forever in our current world of instantaneous everything. It was like a return to old movies where all the credits are shown before the movie actually starts.
There is a lot of action outside of the plane, which makes the movie feel less claustrophobic. There are a lot of shots of the plane itself, especially with the fighters around it, so the viewer isn’t wondering if everything is shot on a soundstage, or over the course of different times. Or, at least, it’s not as apparent as in other movies (I’m looking at you, The Zone).
One of the most intense scenes actually has little to do with the inside of the plane at all; when the hijacking is first announced and the pilots try to land the plane, the sequence of them trying to land while Ivan tells them to get the plane in the air, and Air Force One careens down the runway in Ramstein, is actually quite harrowing. Up until AIr Force One banks away from Ramstein, I was on the edge of my seat (metaphorically, as I was comfortably reclining). The whole sequence was perfectly paced and very well put together, and it was very easy to believe that the plane was going to crash or run over a lot of people.
It’s awesome that there’s a female Vice President, and that she didn’t let the men take over.
Back to my love of Andrew Divoff, and me again wondering why he isn’t a bigger star. Big star or no (more of a character actor, I guess, and voice over artist), he really does have a long sequence all to himself with Harrison Ford, which I think is awesome. How many people get to say Harrison Ford beat them up and put them in a sleeper hold? Not too many. All of my attention in the scene was on Divoff, and I wish he’d star in more movies.
There are many parallels to Die Hard (and I can’t seem to write a post without referencing Die Hard in one way or another).
–Melanie Mitchell is shot by Ivan while he’s trying to negotiate with Marshall to reveal himself, the way Hans shoots Ellis while trying to get McClane to come forward.
–Ivan thinks Marshall is a Secret Service Agent, while Hans thinks McClane is a security guard
–Bennett and the rest of the cabinet try to help Marshall from the ground, the way Al and his officers try to help McClane from the ground (each facing antagonism, from the Secretary of Defense and Agent Robinson, respectively)
–in both films, the heroes’ wives are taken hostage (though Hans didn’t know Holly and McClane were related at first), and eventually separated from the other hostages
–the hostages are led to perceived safety by the hero (McClane to the roof and Marshall to the cargo bay)
–Ivan and Grace fall down the stairs, while Hans and Holly fall out a window (and Ivan, if he’d gotten to parachute out, might have taken Grace with him)
The hostages escape by parachuting out the back of Air Force One, which is great, yay escaping the terrorists, but do those parachutes have trackers on them or anything? Or did 32 American citizens just leap into eastern Europe, many of them likely without identification on them? I hope they find some nice people who speak English, and not any hidden cells of Radek supporters. Are they even over land? Or did 32 people just drown? Or break their legs because they can’t see the ground in the dark and don’t know what they’re doing?
The film does an excellent job of creating palpable feelings of relief, or perhaps that’s just me, but I really felt relieved when certain things go right and the tension is released as the music swells–such as when the fax goes through, the plane starts to decrease its altitude, the one guy comes to tell Bennett that “we’ve retaken the plane,” and of course when Liberty 2-4 says, “Liberty 2-4 is changing its call sign–Liberty 2-4 is now Air Force One,” because that last one means the President is finally safe.
Philip Baker Hall plays the Attorney General who tries to have the cabinet declare Marshall compromised due to the nature of the mission. Hall is one of those actors who is horrendously distracting in anything I see him in, because I so strongly associate him with his role as Bookman the Library Cop in Seinfeld. Every time I see him in something I expect him to interrogate someone about their library books.
I remember when I first saw Air Force One that I thought the CGI of the plane crashing at the end was terrible. Watching it now, it isn’t as terrible as I remember, so maybe it’s a different cut of the film or it was fixed up before it went on Amazon. Or perhaps I’ve seen even more horrible CGI since then. Nothing quite compares to well-done miniatures, models, and practical effects. …but I guess they couldn’t really smash up the real Air Force One, or even a real plane painted to look like Air Force One.
My final verdict is that Air Force one is a very entertaining movie if a person is in the mood for some action, a little politics, and Harrison Ford kicking ass while not being Han Solo, Indiana Jones, or Jack Ryan. It’s also really interesting to see a movie where the President of the United States is the main character. The only list I could find online of movies starring or heavily featuring Presidents is here at metacritic.com. I’ve seen In The Line of Fire (also directed by Wolfgang Petersen) and Vantage Point, and remember liking them. I almost considered doing Vantage Point for this site, but it’s more thrillery than actiony, if that makes any sense. We’ll see how desperate I am when it comes time to do another “V” movie, though it certainly can’t be worse than Vehicle 19. So, for the ass-kicking President alone, watch Air Force One!