Tom Cruise and Top Gun: Maverick may have brought back the summer blockbuster, but twenty-five years ago, a different star made a movie about a plane that earned its own blockbuster status. It was no Titanic, but that film didn’t come out until December of that year, whereas Air Force One, Wolfgang Petersen’s action thriller starring Harrison Ford, came out in July, flying to an eventual $315 million worldwide gross. 1997 was a big year for blockbusters, as Air Force One’s numbers, despite being impressive, weren’t even enough to win July. It came in second to Men in Black, the July 4th release that solidified Will Smith’s box office reign. With all of this in mind, Air Force One has stood the test of time as a perennial occupant on Saturday-afternoon basic cable and a movie that not only still holds up (somewhat), twenty-five years later, but reminds us of what movie stars used to be and how blockbusters were fun (and even cheesy).
Air Force One was the last of its kind in many ways, providing an A-list movie star in another riff on the basic premise of John McTiernan’s 1988 action-thriller, Die Hard. In Air Force One, Harrison Ford plays the President of the United States, John Marshall, who takes on a group of militants who have hijacked Air Force One, the official plane that carries the President, along with his family, staff, and press. Although other Die Hard rip-offs were, basically, “Die Hard on a plane,” like Passenger 57 (1992), Executive Decision (1996), and Con Air (1997), Air Force One rose above them all. Air Force One was also the last film influenced by Die Hard to be set on a plane; as director Petersen noted, if Air Force One hadn’t yet been made by 2001, it never would have been, given the events of September 11.
Air Force One’s success can be attributed to timing in another way as well. It came out during a rare era in America where politics weren’t nearly as divided as they are now, making it much easier to portray an American president who appeals to mainstream audiences, regardless of party affiliation (in the film, Marshall was neither Democrat nor Republican). Although The West Wing hadn’t come yet (it premiered in 1999), the success of Dave in 1993 and The American President in 1995 proved that audiences, in the era of prosperity and political calm during the Clinton years, welcomed movies that portrayed their leader in a positive light and even inspired you to root for them.
So, once Air Force One had a tried-and-true premise and a central character Americans were eager to accept, all it needed was a movie star to play the President. And that’s where the film indeed became the stuff of legend.
Although Tom Cruise is undoubtedly his generation’s greatest movie star, Harrison Ford can arguably be called the greatest movie star of all time; an actor who is at the center of three of the greatest film franchises of all time, playing three iconic characters in film history, Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Jack Ryan. But those iconic characters are only a small part of Ford’s filmography, as the Oscar-nominated star has done romantic comedies, dramas, thrillers, and sci-fi, proving he can truly do anything.
What’s fascinating about the President in Air Force One is it seems like the quintessential Ford role; the all-American hero, likable, modest, noble, and strong. Think a kick-ass Tom Hanks. But, even though Air Force One seems to be peak Harrison Ford, it turned out to be the last film in which he stars in a movie as the hero. In the 20 years between 1977 and 1997, Ford starred in a string of movies unlike any other in history: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, The Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Witness, Mosquito Coast, Frantic, Working Girl, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Presumed Innocent, Regarding Henry, Patriot Games, The Fugitive, Clear and Present Danger, Sabrina, The Devil’s Own, and Air Force One. I dare you to name another star with a list that impressive, ever. Ford would still score again with 2000’s What Lies Beneath (in a rare villain role) and his return as Indiana Jones in 2008, but Air Force One could be seen as an end of an era.
But what an end it was.
Even though the premise feels familiar (because it is), Air Force One feels different because this wasn’t a film that was churned out just to meet the audience’s tastes of the time. In fact, Air Force One was made by one of the pickiest directors in Hollywood (Petersen has made only nine films in forty years) and a writer, Andrew W. Marlowe, who has only three screenplays to his credit, which means Columbia Studios (and its parent company, Sony) were counting on a somewhat more original take on the Die Hard trope, which is exactly what they got.
When the movie begins, President Marshall makes a big speech in Moscow about how America will never negotiate with terrorists [Side note: Watched again today, this speech, declaring that the United States will never stand by and allow tyranny to run rampant, is impossible to watch without thinking of the current situation in Ukraine]. But then, on his flight home on Air Force One, the plane is besieged by a group of radical mercenaries, led by Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman), who intend to trade the hostages, including the President, for the release of his military commander being held prisoner by one of America’s allies. This thrusts the President into a moral, ethical, political, and personal conundrum, as he manages to elude being captured by the terrorists but remains on the plane, hoping he can find some way to save the hostages and get back control of the aircraft by himself.
Yeah, it seems really unrealistic. It is unrealistic. It’s unrealistic and nonsensical, and downright manipulative. But it doesn’t matter because every single bit of it works. This is the kind of movie that makes you literally cheer from your theater seat, and there’s not a single cape in sight. What makes Air Force One such a great popcorn flick is it acts out the ideal of what we all envision and want our leader to be. Although it is incredibly jingoistic, it never once pretends to be anything but a movie designed to play on emotions, pulling every string imaginable, and the audience is only too happy to be its puppet.
But that’s not to say it’s not entirely ridiculous. Even in 1997, the scenarios of this film were outlandish, and audiences even then wondered if the filmmakers actually expected us to believe these scenes were possible? Watching it now, twenty-five years later, many moments are everything from mildly outlandish to downright laughable. But even twenty-five years ago, I remember giggling in the theater during the scene where the hostages parachute out the back of Air Force One, as it not only looked so fake, but they included some close-ups of the faces, including the infamous shot of the White House secretary, played by Messiri Freeman, grinning while floating down, clearly in front of a green screen, which inexplicably made the final cut. Then there’s the poor actor whose character does nothing but run into rooms to deliver messages—he literally does this five or six times. And the multitude of physically impossible—physics-wise and human-capable—stunts and actions we are expected to believe could happen mid-air, helped along by nascent CGI technology that wasn’t able to deliver what was expected of it, including Air Force One’s crash landing into the ocean that is just so, so bad, were eye-rolling at best. And let’s not forget Ford’s line reading of the four words that stand the cheese test of time, ones that came long before Clint Eastwood’s re-working of it, which has become part of the American lexicon, “Get off my plane!” It really is too hokey to be believed, and yet so, so good.
But Air Force One still worked, despite all of its impossibility, hokiness, and clear attempt to manipulate its audience, because of the performances by Ford and Oldman as the hero and the villain. In Ford, we have the classic, all-American hero, accepted instantly by audiences for all the reasons already mentioned. In Oldman, we get a performance for the ages, a movie villain as committed, radical, evil, and angry as they come, delivered with delicious gusto and irreverence by an actor who had already played Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula, Dylan Thomas, and Beethoven. By the time he got to play the extremist terrorist Korshunov, he had displayed every bit of his natural talent that would eventually win him an Oscar. Oldman’s fictional villain in Air Force One sneers and hisses, screams and whispers, avoiding being an easy caricature yet piling on the villain cliches. Oldman’s performance is electric, simple yet alluring, and his scenes with Ford are a master class of unrelenting force meeting an immovable object.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Air Force One is the juxtaposition of excellent, famous actors giving outstanding performances against background players that seem straight out of Airplane! Petersen clearly focused all of his attention on the starring and supporting players and let everyone else just flounder about, directionless, in the background. This is most evident in the scenes set in the White House, where the nameless staffers sit around, looking horrified, then, as soon as the cue is given, all take off in different directions, like cartoon chickens. It’s actually quite hilarious and makes you wonder if it might have been intentional.
But the outlandish CGI, stunts, and silly background acting still don’t deny some great performances that keep the movie on its trajectory. Besides Ford and Oldman, Glenn Close gives an underrated performance as the Vice President, William H. Macy shines in a small role as an Air Force One officer, Dean Stockwell makes the most of the part of the self-serving and perhaps a bit misogynistic Secretary of State, Jürgen Prochnow chews the best scenery as the rebel strongman the terrorists are trying to free, and (the late) Philip Baker Hall makes an appearance as the Attorney General. There are even great performances from lesser-known actors, like Wendy Crewson and Liesl Matthews, who play the President’s wife and daughter, both of whom are highly effective in their roles, despite not being written to be anything more than props.
The dichotomy between excellent acting performances and cheesy script, basic CGI, and laughable action sequences are part of what makes Air Force One such a fun ride. But, let’s be honest, what makes Air Force One so much of a joy to revisit on a Saturday afternoon is how much a throwback it is to the days of popcorn action flicks, with clear-cut villains and a hero that’s easy to root for, mixed with non-stop action. It’s manipulative and cheesy but actually contains a real-world message that remains sadly all too relevant. I also believe what continues to speak to us the most about Air Force One and what makes it live on is how it fulfills an ideal that every American longs for — a leader to be proud of, one who embodies all the ideals this country was built on and strives for.
These days, movie heroes have special powers and live in a fantasy universe, but in Air Force One, the hero is the one the people have chosen to represent them. In this day and age, that feels like a larger reach than the existence of a hero from another planet. So, to those who dismiss Air Force One as a bombastic, jingoistic, silly, over-the-top popcorn flick, I implore you to give it another look and embrace it for all it shamelessly is and all it’s trying to be. A little wishful thinking never hurt anyone. And if you still can’t buy into it, well, as Ford says in the film, “Get off my plane!”