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Air Force One

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: Glenn Close, Wendy Crewson, Paul Guilfoyle, William H. Macy, Liesel Matthews, Dean Stockwell, Xander Berkeley, Bill Smitrovich

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Review by Steve Rhodes
4 stars out of 4

The movie AIR FORCE ONE should require a doctor's approval, for those with weak hearts may not make it. Just ten minutes into the movie, my heart was racing and goose pimples had flared up all over my body. Although there would be brief interludes when I was able to relax, most of the show found my adrenaline pumping right along with President James Marshall's. After the show ended I found myself gasping for breath and trying hopelessly to reconnect with the real world. I had just been through such an incredible experience that I found it hard to believe I was sitting in a theater.

The director of AIR FORCE ONE is the great Wolfgang Petersen. His DAS BOOT is a cinematic masterpiece that blends heart-stopping action with the story of real people in peril. So it is with AIR FORCE ONE, easily the best action picture of the year, but thanks to Petersen's meticulous direction and first-time screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe's well laid out script, the human equation is even more compelling. The intelligent and clever script has enough humor to break the tension periodically.

Harrison Ford is the president, and a darn good one, based on this movie. Ford brings a presence to the office while still imbuing the character with humanity and fear. President Marshall was a medal of honor recipient in Vietnam, and Ford uses all of the tricks he learned in his role as Jack Ryan in the movies based on Tom Clancy's novels. In short, Ford delivers one of his best performances ever. Next to the direction, his acting is the second best part of the film.

The story does cause one to suspend disbelief a bit, but the story as delivered feels plausible even if there are many parts one could quibble with. INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM was full of ridiculous aspects but that did not detract from its beauty and neither do the small liberties AIR FORCE ONE takes with the situation.

When Gary Oldman (THE FIFTH ELEMENT) and his entourage enter the President's plane masquerading as friendly Russian journalists, you know what will happen. Even if you haven't seen the trailers, an unlikely situation, you know that Oldman's specialty is bad guys. When all hell breaks loose in the cabin, knowing it is inevitable does not lessen the tension one iota.

Petersen can stage action sequences so realistic that they seem to literally suck the audience into the scene. Ivan Korshunov, the leader of the Russian dissidents, played by Oldman doing what he does best -- terrorists and lunatics, could not have been better cast. He is vicious in the action sequences, and chilling in his quieter confrontations with the first family, underplayed by Wendy Crewson as the First Lady, Grace, and Liesel Matthews (A LITTLE PRINCESS) as the First (teenage) Kid, Alice. "You murdered 100,000 Iraqis to save a nickel a gallon on gas," he shouts at the First Lady. "Don't lecture me on the articles of war."

"How the hell did this happen?" demands Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close). "How the hell did they get Air Force One?" Although she seems too stiff at first to be believable -- well, on second thought, maybe that is plausible -- Close soon finds her footing and manages to take control of a seemingly intractable situation, complicated further by the political intrigue within the White House. When people hesitate to carry out a strange order from the president, she backs him all the way. "He's not asking," she barks. "The commander-in-chief issued a direct order. Now do it!"

Dean Stockwell, as Defense Secretary Walter Dean, gives a beautiful re-enactment of the Alexander Haig role when President Reagan was shot. "The presidency is bigger than one man," Dean shouts to an underling not enamored with Dean's idea of shooting down the plane. "Didn't they teach you that at Yale?"

Once Korshunov gets control of the plane he announces that he will execute a hostage every 30 minutes unless Communist and Nationalist leader General Alexander Radek is released from prison. In a tiny but crucial role Jurgen Prochnow, the U-boat skipper from DAS BOOT, plays General Radek. The scene of him walking as the Communist Internationale plays will not soon be forgotten.

Petersen gets so many of the small details perfect. To add to the authenticity, he has the Russians talk to each other in Russian with English subtitles, but has Korshunov speak English to the Americans. In another small detail, he has the president get trapped like a rat in a maze, not knowing where to turn to escape.

Bravery rarely appears on the screen anymore, bravado having replaced it. Petersen brings back old fashioned bravery and makes it credible. Many individuals risk their lives to save their president -- from the first Secret Service agents who whisk the President away when the firing starts to the ace pilot who puts his plane between a missile and Air Force One in one of the film's stirring dogfight sequences.

People in my charged-up audience were applauding sporadically throughout the film. And laughing occasionally at its humor. Easily the funniest line is Ford's. When one of his aides suggests a brilliant way out of their predicament, he tells her with a big smile, "If this works, you get to be Postmaster General." Speaking in quasi-code, Marshall tells Bennett, "Kathryn, if you give a mouse a cookie." Understanding his meaning, she completes his sentence, "He's gonna want a glass of milk."

In a show that never flags for a moment, the endgame does not disappoint. Although the film is developed into a seamless whole rather the traditional configuration of setup, body, and conclusion. The suspense builds and the tension ratchets up until the end. The critic I was sitting next to, his girlfriend, my wife, and I all let out a collective, "oh my god" type of sigh when the ending credits finally rolled. I have not seen a better movie this year.

AIR FORCE ONE runs a blindingly fast 1:58. It is rated R for some bloody images, but overall I found the violence realistic but never overdone or gory. The film would be fine for teenagers. I was blown away by the picture so I give it my strongest recommendation and my top rating of ****.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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