The President's plane, Air Force One, has been hijacked.
Harrison Ford is President James Marshall, the John McClane-type hero in this American-chest-thumping "Die Hard"-derived hardware movie. "Air Force One" is the fourth American directorial outing for West German director Wolfgang Petersen, who made an international splash with "Das Boot" in 1981, and it shares many aspects with his previous work, including the relentless pacing, a psychological war of nerves as a central conflict, and cinematography that would feel at home in a documentary.
Peace is not merely the absence of conflict... it is also the presence of justice.
It is three weeks after the black-ops capture of General Alexander Radek (Jürgen Prochnow, the Captain in "Das Boot"), the genocidal fascist leader of breakaway Soviet republic Kazakhstan. At a state dinner in the Kremlin, President James Marshall expresses regret for the non-interventionist foreign policy of his administration in dealing with Radek, whose genocidal reign of terror went unchallenged for so long, until the threat of nuclear terrorism forced the hand of the U.S. to act (an interesting parallel to the 'hands-off' attitude of the Clinton administration with respect to the brutal Siege of Sarajevo, which took the downing of a U.S. pilot and the shelling of a crowded market, 2 years after the siege began, before anything was done-- even though hundreds of thousands had already died by that time, but I digress). Marshall, without consulting with his staff, tells the assembled dignitaries that the United States will take a more pro-active role against would-be aggressors and no longer tolerate terrorism of any kind, essentially committing his entire administration to this new policy.
The President won't negotiate.
I have his wife and daughter... I think he'll negotiate.
Later that evening, Marshall and entourage board the Presidential transport, Air Force One, and prepare to return to Washington (there are actually two specially-modified 747s used by the President, and Air Force One is the callsign used by the plane when the President is aboard either aircraft, or any aircraft for that matter). Unknowingly some supporters of General Radek, led by Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman, the chameleon of actors), have slipped aboard disguising themselves as a Russian news crew. With some help from the inside, they manage to break into a weapons locker and promptly gain control of the plane.
In half an hour, they're going to kill another hostage... and I'm afraid it's going to be me.
Marshall then finds himself trapped in the confined spaces of the underbelly of Air Force One and separated from his wife Grace (Wendy Crewson) and his 12-year old daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews). He must take on the terrorists one-by-one and free the hostages that Korshunov is using to bargain for the release of Radek.
Your National Security Advisor was a good negotiator... he just bought you another half hour.
Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) is recalled to the White House and thrust into the crisis. On one side, Kroshunov is killing one hostage every half-hour until his demands are met, and on the other, Defense Secretary Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell) is pushing to having the President declared 'incapacitated' so that Bennett can start making decisions, unconstrained by the threats of the terrorists.
Get off my plane!
One of the key aspects that separates AFO from the other retreads of the "Die Hard" formula are the excellent performances that manage to overcome the clunky dialogue. Marshall is the epitome of the ideal American President-- charming, decisive, strong in his beliefs, a loving husband and father, and always putting the needs of others above his own, and Harrison Ford pulls this role off with an air of decorum and believability, which is not surprising given his portrayals of CIA analyst Jack Ryan in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger". Gary Oldman resists the current trend to go over-the-top in his portrayal of the antagonist, and delivers the cold portrayal of a soldier blinded by his nationalistic fervor (a startling contrast to two of his previous outings as villains in "The Fifth Element" and "The Professional"). The overpowering sense of paralysis by analysis over the lives on Air Force One is conveyed nicely by Glenn Close, as we watch Bennett struggle to avoid the further loss of lives at the hands of the terrorists.
Who are you?
I'm the President.
Really? The President wouldn't call at this number.
This is an emergency. I am the President!
Sure, and I'm the First Lady!
Another reason why AFO works, alluded to earlier, is the top-notch action direction by Petersen. Like his previous effort "In the Line of Fire", the story clips along very quickly, heightening the suspense and tension between Marshall and Korshunov. The claustrophobic steady-cam cinematography, first seen in "Das Boot", conveys the confusion aboard Air Force One and the elevated sense of vulnerability as Marshall is stalked by Korshunov's men. The movie is also punctuated by small touches of realism that help to remind the audience that Marshall is just some average Joe that happens to have been elected President of the United States-- some witty sequences include Marshall trying to figure out how to use a cellular phone by reading the instruction manual and his attempts to reach the Vice President with that cellular phone, despite a smart-ass White House switchboard operator.
"Air Force One" is another popcorn movie loaded with eye-popping special effects and suspended belief, but still manages to succeed with some standout performances and standout direction. Of all the "Die Hard" spin-offs available this summer ("Speed 2" and "Con Air" are the other two), this is probably the pick of the crop.