American anxiety takes wing with Air Force One

The latest Hollywood blockbuster touches a raw nerve with its portrayal of a terrorist assault on the President's plane
Click to follow
The Independent Online
They've seen off threats from the Reds, the elements, and the aliens. Now, with the Cold War over, the elemental possibilities exhausted and the aliens definitively conquered by planet Earth (Independence Day), Hollywood's film-makers have turned their attention to a threat so real that screen-writers seemed hesitant even to broach it before: terrorism directed against the hallowed figure of the US president.

When it went on release this weekend, the first of this summer's crop of cinematic blockbusters had Americans queueing round the blocks of movie theatres. Air Force One, a pastiche of Hollywood disaster films that manages none the less to encapsulate the angst of today's America, has caught the popular imagination in a big way.

Starring Harrison Ford as the action-man-of-integrity President, Glenn Close as his equal-opportunities politically-correct vice-president, and Gary Oldman as the diabolical chief commando, and directed by Wolfgang Petersen - of Das Boot - the film was bound to demand attention. But it is less the cast, still less the acting, and only partly the special effects that have gripped America. It is the theme of the film.

From the moment the vice-president breaks official silence to quash an unconfirmed report that the presidential plane has crashed, and gravely announces: "Air Force One has been hijacked", an all-American nightmare has been born.

Her eminently "presidential" call for all Americans to "pray" for the president's safe return, the candle-lit vigil by worried Americans outside the White House, and the in-fighting that ensues in the corridors of power, all contribute to a plausible projection of what might happen if the hitherto unthinkable were to happen. Even the real president gushed with enthusiasm, having seen the film - on his own admission - twice already. "I thought it was great," Bill Clinton told reporters. "You guys should see it."

The airborne sequences often seem improbable, despite the co-operation of the US military in supplying F-15s for the filming. The president hangs off the end of his plane, is stranded on a cable in mid-air, strangles a hijacker with his bare hands. But what happens on the ground seems eminently possible. What is more, the theme of a terrorist threat to state power in the US and the president himself seems an idea whose time has come.

Air Force One is only the first of a spate of presidential/terrorist films due for release. In coming weeks we can expect The Peacemaker and Conspiracy Theory.

If Air Force One is anything to go by, there are aspects of this trend almost as worrying as the hypothesis of a terrorist attack on the president. The scenario is still rooted in the Cold War. The terrorists are communist Russians, long out of power in Moscow, but ruthlessly ruling the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, until being deposed by a joint Moscow-Washington coup.

It is in an attempt to reverse that coup that the commandos launch their attack. Home-grown terrorist attacks are something America's cinema-goers need not yet confront.

The application of disaster-movie themes and techniques to the presidency has real implications in a land where the dividing line between fact and fiction frequently melts away. Despite a smattering of daily life details - the president having to consult the manual to find out how to use a mobile phone - his difficulties getting past the White House switchboard, the film allows Americans to believe that the president, while endangered, is still omnipotent.

Launching a hijacker off the rear platform of the aircraft, the president yells: "Get off my plane!" - words that have become a catchphrase for the film.

This is why some of America's intellectual elite scorn Air Force One, as they have other populist films, as simplistic patriotic junk. Now, journalists and military people familiar with the real Air Force One and presidential security are pointing out what is improbable and impossible in the film.

Security would never allow a Russian camera team so much access. There is no arsenal on the president's plane. No one could use a mobile phone from the hold of a plane at 40,000ft.

President Clinton has also said that "to his knowledge" the plane has no "escape pod" - a detachable unit resembling a space capsule allowing a president to eject.

Yet Air Force One, the film, has all the excitement and entertainment expected from Hollywood. It will make Americans feel good about themselves for another summer - and it may give President Clinton's security detail a few new ideas.