The biggest fantasy element in Air Force One isn't the massive special effects that director Wolfgang Petersen (In the Line of Fire) utilizes so well, but the film's central character, a straight-talking, straight-shooter of a president played by Harrison Ford. At 55, Ford's screen persona has evolved into a Gary Cooperish action hero: a basic decency tempered by an acknowledgment of his flaws, who nonetheless takes a strong moral stand and is able to kick terrorist butt when necessary.
Before Air Force One gets off the ground, a prologue shows combined Russian and American forces capturing the demagogic leader of Kazakstan (a sinister Juergen Prochnow, star of Petersen's Das Boot).
Soon afterward President James Marshall makes a speech in Moscow that typifies the earnest nature of Andrew W. Marlowe's script. Not only does he say, with shame, that the United States got involved in the situation only when its national security was threatened, but that America will take the moral high ground in its foreign policy. And as for terrorists, they'd better watch out. The president's pissed off and he just won't take it anymore.
Marshall then boards Air Force One (a portable cocoon-like White House) for the ride home, unaware that among the passengers are some "Russian ultra-national radicals" (led by a gleefully zealous Gary Oldman) who quickly hijack the plane.
On the ground, the crisis is handled by an ultra-supportive vice president (Glenn Close), who doesn't try to usurp power (any real surprise that this is a woman?) while the heroic president takes charge in the air.
Petersen beautifully maps out Air Force One, establishing the geography of his primary location and using the suspense-release formula so well that this conventional film is genuinely thrilling. From small clever touches (the clichéd wire-cutting scene is given a patriotic twist) to large-scale gambles (the president reeled in like a reluctant trout), Petersen consistently scores.
Air Force One glosses over its jingoistic tendencies and, by putting Harrison Ford in the cockpit, asks audiences to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.