In his synopsis of Air Force One, Dave Letterman phrased it best: Harrison Ford, the ass-kicking president!
It's such a great "high concept" idea that I'm amazed no one thought it up before Air Force One hit movie screens in 1997. Over the prior decade, we saw multiple variations on the Die Hard theme: Die Hard on a bus, Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard on a train, Die Hard on a boat, Die Hard on a donkey - you name it. There didn't seem to be many places left to go, so the creators of Air Force One took the concept and gave it a twist: instead of using a cop or similar character to play the protagonist, let's make it the president!
Actually, the idea of an action hero president wasn't really original, since Independence Day did it a year earlier. However, in that case, the president's role in the plot seemed much less important; certainly, Bill Pullman's character played a key role, but unlike Ford’s President Jim Marshall, he wasn't the focal point of the entire story.
As discussed in the liner notes that come with the DVD, the list of actors who could truly come across as believable as both president and action hero started and ended with one name: Pauly Shore. However, he wasn't available, so they took Harrison Ford.
Okay, that first part isn't true, though the idea seems sound to me. According to the production notes, the producers actually considered making the hero the vice-president since that possibility opened up additional acting options. For an ass-kicking president, they felt that Harrison Ford was the only man for the job.
I have to agree with that point. While I'm sure there are a number of actors who could do well with the role, clearly the producers wanted a "name" actor to play it and I can't think of any notable performers other than Ford who could succeed in the part. Plenty of guys could play the president or an action hero, but not both. Even Pullman, who did it before, would have been a bust in this role.
Solid casting seems to be a hallmark of films made by Wolfgang Petersen, and Air Force One is no exception. In addition to Ford, we get a cast that includes Glenn Close, Gary Oldman, William H. Macy, Xander Berkeley and Dean Stockwell. The only real unknowns in main parts are Wendy Crewson as the First Lady and Liesel Matthews as their daughter.
All actors acquit themselves professionally in their parts, but none other than Ford and Oldman really stand out from the crowd. There's a reason Harrison Ford is possibly the most commercially successful actor ever: what's there to dislike about him? When was the last time you talked to your friends about movies and someone chimed up that they were sick of Harrison Ford or that he annoyed them? While I'm sure it happens, I'm also certain that such conversations occur much less regularly than they do for other "A"-list actors like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt. Ford is simply a totally likable and professional actor who richly deserves all his success. He's also something of a Teflon man; while he's had his fair share of bombs - such as Six Days, Seven Nights and Random Hearts - the stench attached to these projects never seems to stick to him.
Gary Oldman also rarely gives less than a good showing in his movies, but that's where the comparisons to Ford end. While Ford has been something of a modern Gary Cooper in his roles, Oldman comes across more like a male Meryl Streep with the wide variety of characters and nationalities he plays. While he may not completely take over every part he plays, I find Oldman to almost always be very watchable and compelling. He's one of the best actors working today, and he's one of the few "name" actors who can really seem to lose himself in a part; I spend much less time thinking of him as "Gary Oldman" than I do if I watch, say, Jack Nicholson (who I always think of as “Gary Oldman”).
As I mentioned earlier, "A"-list casting is one given of a Wolfgang Petersen film. Another is that while his films are always solidly constructed and quite professional, they rarely transcend the genre to become truly exceptional. Look at his last four movies: 2000’s The Perfect Storm, 1997’s Air Force One, 1995’s Outbreak, and 1993’s In the Line of Fire. While each of these certainly provided compelling action and easily maintained an audience's interest for two hours, I didn't feel that any of them ever did anything remarkable enough to merit inclusion with classics of the genre such as Die Hard or Aliens. Those films were truly special and they influenced many films over the years. While Petersen's movies can be terrific entertainment, they never go past that to give the audience anything new; they're tremendously well executed and competent, but they lack a spark that could take them to another level.
But this shouldn't be interpreted as a tremendous slight, because seminal movies of the kind listed come along so rarely. At least when you see the name Wolfgang Petersen attached to a film you know it'll be well-done and reasonably compelling, and Air Force One fits that mold well.
Air Force One appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen picture was reviewed for this article. Though not without some concerns, as a whole I thought the film looked quite good.
Sharpness seemed to be very crisp and detailed throughout the movie. I saw virtually no signs of softness or fuzziness, and the film always boasted a nicely distinct and accurate presentation. A smidgen of edge enhancement appeared, but I saw no problems related to moiré effects or jagged edges. In regard to print flaws, occasional speckles appeared, and I saw a tiny amount of grit and a streak or two. Otherwise, the film seemed to be free of defects and it looked fresh and clean.
Air Force One featured a pretty subdued palette. The vast majority of the film took place in office spaces, whether in the White House or on the jet, and these didn’t lend themselves to bright, vivid hues. Nonetheless, colors looked clear and accurate throughout the movie, and when we did see some more intense tones - such as via roses at the start of the film - they looked nicely vibrant and lush.
Black levels caused the strongest concerns during Air Force One, but they remained fairly minor. I thought dark tones came across as a little mushy and flat at times, particularly during exterior shots. Shadow detail seemed to be reasonably clear, though some interiors suffered slightly from the moderately bland blacks and they could be a little murky at times. Nonetheless, all in all I thought most of Air Force One looked quite good, and it occasionally presented an outstanding image.
On the other hand, I found virtually nothing to complain about in regard to the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Air Force One. From start to finish, this was a stellar affair. The soundfield presented a very active and aggressive piece that pushed the limits of all five channels. The film’s score showed fine stereo separation as well as a strong presence from the surround channels, and effects usage seemed to be quite solid. Elements popped from all around the viewer, and localization appeared excellent, as these elements always came from logical places. The audio blended together well to create a seamless and involving environment that was consistently broad and engaging. From the loud aspects of the track to the natural jet ambience, the entire package seemed very strong.
Audio quality seemed to be solid as well. Despite the high level of looped dialogue, the speech sounded natural and distinct throughout the film, and I detected no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were quite clean and accurate, and they showed fine dynamic range; gunfire, explosions, and jet flying noises all appeared crisp and free from distortion, and they boasted positive low-end when appropriate. Actually, the strongest bass response came from the bright and powerful score, which showed terrific dynamics. Ultimately, this was an excellent soundtrack that made the film more satisfying.
Air Force One includes a few extras, but the prime attraction is an audio commentary from director Wolfgang Petersen. As guided by some interviewers, Petersen offers a running, screen-specific track. If you hope to gain insight Petersen's filmmaking, forget it. It's a fairly flat and technical exercise. Unfortunately, the presence of someone to prompt Petersen for information doesn't seem to help much. I felt that Petersen simply spent too much time telling us about effects and not enough letting us know why he did what he did.
The overwhelming impression this commentary left with me was the image of Petersen incessantly pointing out when the on-screen plane was a model, a computer image, or real. This was interesting for between 20 and 30 seconds; after that it became something of a drag. At least Petersen proved to be very chatty; while some of the notes weren’t fascinating, he kept them coming with great rapidity, so the track maintained a good pace. Ultimately, there’s enough interesting information to make the Air Force One commentary worth a listen, but it remained a fairly uncompelling piece.
Other than the commentary, the Air Force One DVD contains few extras. We get a trailer and some short but decent production notes that are included in the DVD's booklet.
Overall, Air Force One makes for a decent DVD. The movie itself feels mechanical and forced at times, but it offers a reasonably exciting and entertaining experience. Both picture and sound were very good, but the DVD lacks significant extras other than a mediocre audio commentary. Fans of the film should be pleased with the disc, but those who aren’t sure should give Air Force One a rental instead.
To rate this film, go to AIR FORCE ONE: Superbit