A Los Angeles office building. A group of violent terrorists. One man stands in their way — a tough New York cop. Die Hard!
Das Boot, 1981, also directed by Petersen. Perhaps his best film.
Die Hard, the first movie (?) to use this aging formula.
Die Hard II: Die Harder, another entry into this formula, also with cool airplane effects.
A military vessel. A group of violent terrorists. One man stands in their way — a former Navy SEAL. Under Siege!
A presidential airborne fortress. A group of violent terrorists. One man stands in their way — The President of the United States?
This formula has gone too far. A cop, okay. A Navy SEAL, alright. A president, don’t be silly.
Because I was expecting In The Line of Fire II, I was surprised and insulted by the premise. The president as an action hero? What nonsense! A president who’s been through the political meat grinder with his youthful idealism intact? Don’t make me gag!
In case you haven’t heard already, President Marshall (Harrison Ford), flying home from Russia on Air Force One, is hijacked and ransomed for the release of a Russian terrorist. Marshall manages to escape into the cargo hold and harass the kidnapers from there, a la Bruce Willis in Die Hard.
You should know that this movie is an action movie, not a thriller. It is closer to Con Air than it is to In the Line of Fire. The plot and the details are cartoonish, not psychological. Now, with that in mind, Air Force One is pretty good. But it is not subtle or intellectual.
Part of why I expected a smart thriller is because the director is Wolfgang Petersen, director of Das Boot, a claustrophobic look at life aboard a WWI German U-boat, and of In the Line of Fire, an exciting cat-and-mouse thriller. Petersen’s latest, Outbreak, was a lot closer to an action movie than a thriller, and it looks like he has finally fully crossed over now with Air Force One.
There is a surprising similarity between Air Force One and many of Petersen’s previous films. One of the first people we see is Jürgen Prochnow, who played the Captain in Das Boot. Both settings (this movie and Das Boot) are tight, closed, and finite. The airplane’s defenses are highlighted and even look similar to those of the U-boat. And like In the Line of Fire, an F-14 puts itself between AFO and a Russian missile, like some valiant winged secret service agent. Petersen is borrowing from his own work.
Petersen is not a bad action director. In fact, there are a few very tense sequences in AFO that really stand out. An early attempt at landing AFO incorporates tension from the ground rescue crew, the pilot, the terrorists, and the President’s cabinet. There is also an awesome stunt (probably computer-faked) involving a lifeline between two aircraft.
In addition, there is a spark of an idea in this movie that could have proved interesting, had it been played up: President Marshall (Harrison Ford) is a lot like hijacker Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman). President Marshall vows to use force, if necessary, to defend what he knows is morally right. It is this moral certainty that makes him no better than Ivan Korshunov.
Korshunov says “you have just handed my country over to gangsters and prostitutes;” he is as morally certain and rightfully indignant as Marshall, so in Marshall’s own stated moral landscape (using force to defend what one knows is right), this is all the justification Korshunov needs to commit violent acts. Marshall is the victim of a hijacker who shares his own moral code. How beautifully ironic the situation, and how disappointing that Petersen didn’t do more with it.
Further, when the terrorist’s demands have been met, Korshunov does not keep his end of the bargain; he doesn’t release the hostages. Okay, he’s the bad guy. That’s expected. But when the “Good guys” finally get the upper hand, they behave no better, gunning down a man who has just been freed from prison.
Petersen didn’t really explore this hypocrisy, but at least he left it open by giving the terrorist some understandable motives and some legitimate gripes. Still, the idea is obscured, if not lost, through the haze of testosterone morality and action movie justice.
Because I was expecting more, I was a little disappointed by AFO. On the other hand, Petersen is a good action director, and if you know what to expect, you’ll probably enjoy this movie.