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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 07/31/1997, B: Peter Keough,

Hell to the chief

Air Force One has executive power

by Peter Keough

AIR FORCE ONE. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Written by Andrew W. Marlowe. With Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close, Wendy Crewson, Liesel Matthews, Paul Guilfoyle, Xander Berkeley, William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell, and Jčrgen Prochnow. A Columbia Pictures release. At the Cheri, the Fresh Pond, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

The media have had their fun beating on the president; now the movies get their turn. The pulse-pounding, often hysterically funny Air Force One does so literally: as President James Marshall, Harrison Ford gets punched, kicked, choked, shot at, slashed by glass, suspended 15,000 feet above the earth. In short, he undergoes every torment endured by Bruce Willis in the entire Die Hard series and then some.

Which is appropriate, since this film is Die Hard meets Con Air with executive privilege. Derivative and preposterous though it may be, Air Force One is given wings by Wolfgang Petersen's canny direction (after this and In the Line of Fire he should be hired by Bill Clinton as an image adviser), Ford's wryly sexy and dyspeptic performance, and the wit and near-hallucinatory verisimilitude of its effects and action sequences. Not only is it one of the most exciting thrillers of the summer, it's one of the most revealing about the audience it has so successfully beguiled.

Although said audience may relish seeing its leader maligned in real life, in the collective dream of the movies it prefers a demigod. After delivering a tough and crusading anti-terrorism speech in the Kremlin, President Marshall is dismayed to find his plane taken over by the same retro-Commie Russian nationalist thugs he denounced. Headed by haughty Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman doing his standard psycho creep with abrupt mannerisms), the hijackers demand the release of the imprisoned General Radek (Jčrgen Prochnow), the former head of Kazakhstan, an outlaw former Soviet Republic whose idea of fun is genocide and hand-to-hand combat with nuclear weapons. In advising the US government to cooperate, the bad guys point out that they have the president's wife, his daughter, most of his cabinet, and his baseball glove held hostage.

But not the president -- in one of the film's many brilliant twists, he's managed to elude the kidnappers and is hiding out in the bowels of the plane. Marshall's ostensible moral dilemma is whether to save his wife (Wendy Crewson) and daughter (Liesel Matthews) and yield to the terrorists' demands, thus unleashing a madman capable of starting a nuclear war. Can he sacrifice his family to save the world? That question, of course, is moot, since the world and his family are one and the same, and Marshall is the father not just of his country but everyone else's, too. Armed only with a cellular phone, cut off from the vast resources ordinarily at his command, he must prove that he is still the most powerful -- and best -- man in the world.

It helps that he's a movie president. According to this film and last summer's Independence Day -- and in marked contrast to the actual resident of the Oval Office -- the minimum qualifications for Chief Executive include not just military service but a Congressional Medal of Honor and the ability to fall back on combat skills. So we have the rousing, absurd spectacle of the president coolly snapping the neck of an adversary, or peppering pursuers with automatic-weapon fire. These in-flight high jinks are matched by the shenanigans of the support team back at the White House, with Dean Stockwell as the Alexander Haig-like Defense Secretary trying to turn the crisis to his political advantage and a power-suited Glenn Close as Vice-President Bennett, who barks out lines like "Get me the Attorney-General, General, and a copy of the Constitution!"

Fortunately, Petersen's sense of humor is as keen as his sense of suspense, and he balances the preposterous and the gutwrenching. He paces his diabolical shockers, from the ruthless carnage of the terrorist takeover of the plane to the outrageous climax (a high-altitude variation on that of The Towering Inferno), with relentless aplomb. That's one reason the film topped the box office last weekend, taking in $37 million.

Another reason might be that Air Force One is a bipartisanly satisfying wish-fulfillment fantasy. Like Independence Day, it posits a leader who is pure good and villains who are pure evil. It's a nostalgic return to the Old World Order, with a resuscitated Red Menace -- disguised as the media, no less -- subverting the heart of the country. It's a blueprint for power as old as Triumph of the Will, and you can be sure its success won't go unnoticed. With laugh-out-loud absurdity balanced by its gasp-out-loud thrills, Air Force One at least beats the campaign-finance investigations for excitement and political relevance.