Get me out of here

Air Force One Wolfgang Petersen (15)
The America we have become used to, from The X Files and its many sibling programmes, is a twilight America, packed with vampires and aliens, cults and conspiracies, a fantasy America which corresponds to what a surprising number of actual Americans believe. Wolfgang Petersen's new film, Air Force One, is a throwback to an earlier doctrine of national identity, by which America is a noonday place, free of troubling shadows, where all threats are external and authority is not only reliable but in the know. Action thrillers are usually preposterous, but Air Force One is so preposterous that it begins to seem like a science-fiction artefact in its own right, the product of a parallel-universe 1990s which somehow by-passed the decades since the 1950s, in every area except technology.

Harrison Ford plays President James Marshall, a composite of every dreary virtue that America imagines it would elect if given the chance: man of conscience, man of vision, man of action, devoted family man who feels for all the families in the world, profound patriot who speaks Russian. Ford badly needs to play a few villains if his acting isn't going to become permanently presidential, largely a matter of strong jaw and sombre expression. At a Moscow banquet early in the film, held to honour his courage in committing American troops to a raid that kidnapped the rebel president of Kazakhstan, he dissents from the mood of celebration to lament the lateness of intervention. While politicians hesitated, babies died. Never again will he allow political self-interest to blind him and America to human rights violations. Anyone who's read the occasional newspaper will know what happens when the United States mistakes itself for the United Nations, but this President seems to confuse his country with Amnesty International - an organisation which could justifiably take offence.

It isn't just the President. After a Kazakhstani zealot (Gary Oldman, shouting and smoking and saying "Airkreft") takes over the presidential plane, the Secretary of Defence argues against negotiating with a terrorist. Why, that would be to abandon the bedrock principle of American policy for the past 25 years! It would be nice to report that Glenn Close as the Vice President (a well-deserved promotion after Mars Attacks!, where she only played the First Lady) answers with a suitably sarcastic, "Yeah, right". But no. She shares the dilemma.

The most unusual thing about Air Force One is the amount of official blessing it had from the US Military. This is product placement, but not at the level of sunglasses and brands of beer - on the level of tanks and missiles. The difference, of course, is that it's a sellers' market. If you don't meet the image-promotion targets of the Department of Defence, the Army, the Navy and the National Guard, where exactly are you going to go for your hardware? Those agencies are properly concerned to get value for money, and Uncle Sam's goodwill doesn't come free. No project will be considered which shows American service people at anything but their idealised best, but it's also important that the plot be nonsensical - it can't dramatise a non-fantastical weakness in national security. Hollywood doesn't exactly target the highest sensibilities, but you can be sure that the armed forces (Advertising Section) won't rubber-stamp anything that even the dumbest viewer would find credible.

In other words, if you want your film to look real in terms of equipment and surfaces, it must be utterly unreal in terms of story and character. So completely does the script of Air Force One meet this criterion - worshipful of Americans in uniform, idiotic in every incident - that the makers didn't have to call the military. The military called them.

How did half a dozen terrorists get aboard the presidential flight? Their identities, including fingerprints, were recognised by the machine. How was that managed, and at short notice, too? Umm... Look over there, those are authentic UH69 Black Hawk helicopters. How did the bad guys get their hands on the plane's armoury? Err... Over there, genuine C-141 Starlifter, check it out... There was a traitor on board.

For over an hour of the film this traitor is known to the audience but not to the good guys - which would be a powerful suspense mechanism, if only we cared. The double-agent doesn't even get the obligatory speech in which he explains his motivation, testifying to his Kazakhstani nationalist granny or to the overwhelming craving for real Havana cigars which put his loyalty up for sale, before plummeting from 30,000 feet. First-time screenwriter Andrew Marlowe has the bold idea of omitting motivation all together.

Director Petersen has a track-record of competence and sometimes something more distinctive (Das Boot, Shattered, In the Line of Fire), but he leaves dozens of loose ends trailing. The President manages to fax a message to the ground, and no one sees it in the confusion. But then it turns out that somebody must have picked it up after all, only the director didn't think we needed to see.

The President's wife and daughter are on board Air Force One, and are sensibly recruited as hostages by the terrorists, while the President does his sub-Die Hard routines of lurk and pounce in the plane's interior spaces. This is the dilemma that the film imagines it is addressing - the conflict of priorities between a father of spunky Alice (Liesel Matthews) and Father of his Country. In fact, the film dodges conflict whenever it threatens to arrive. The Vice-President is passed a resolution suspending Marshall, so that a more disinterested person can make the decisions, but she refuses to sign it, and that's that. She, or her director, seems to have forgotten the bit where it was explained that the vote didn't need to be unanimous but a majority. She has no veto. Even in the action, whenever Marshall has to choose between the fate of the world and the life of his family, he agonises nobly until the choice is taken from him by the intervention of the screenwriter, who provides an unforeseeable way out.

In one especially silly sequence, the President has found a room full of lights and wires, and is being told by mobile phone how to disable the plane. Then the phone's battery runs down before he can learn the colour of the crucial wire to cut and splice. He mutters "I'm counting on you, red white and blue" as he makes his move. The free world is safe in the hands of a man who bases decisions of life and death on the chance colour correspondence of wires and the national flag n

On general release from tomorrow

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