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 an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. This disc represents the second DVD release of AFO. The original came out more than three and a half years earlier, back when the format hadn’t even celebrated its first birthday. It crammed both fullscreen and widescreen versions of the movie onto one double-sided disc, but somehow it still managed to offer quite satisfying picture and sound.
However, apparently the good folks at Columbia-Tristar (CTS) thought they could improve upon this presentation. As such, AFO - as well as some other films - has been reissued as part of their “Superbit” collection. According to the booklet that accompanied the DVD, this line offers “the highest standard for picture and sound available on DVD” with “higher bit rate for better picture resolution than standard DVD”.
Those are some lofty goals - will the DVDs reach them? After all, AFO already looked pretty solid. I found some mild mushiness to black levels and a couple of small print flaws, but overall it offered a satisfying visual experience that I rated with a “B+”.
If you’ve already read my review of the original DVD, prepare for a sense of déjŕ vu; the Superbit edition looked like a near clone of it. 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 bit of grit, a streak or two, and some light grain at times. Otherwise, the film seemed to be free of defects and it looked generally 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 these issues 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.
I felt that the Superbit version of AFO seemed a little brighter than the old one. Those differences were minor but not positive. It appeared that the extra light showed grain in a slightly more obvious manner, and it also made the visual effects look less realistic. Granted, some of them weren’t that hot during the old disc, but the new one didn’t help them improve. Ultimately, I thought the Superbit image deserved the same “B+” I gave to the original disc, for it continued to demonstrate a consistently good and occasionally great image that was marred only by a few small concerns. Frankly, I saw no improvements, however. In fact, I think I prefer the picture on the old DVD, as the slightly darker look provided a generally more satisfying experience; it hid some of the source flaws.
Other than the change in brightness, I felt that the Superbit AFO used the same transfer as the original disc. It had all of the same print flaws, and the slight edge enhancement that appeared on the first one showed up in the identical places here. I don’t know if the minor added brightness had something to do with the higher bit rate of the new DVD, but I saw no indications that a more recent transfer was used for the Superbit edition. It’s still a good image, but I saw nothing to recommend it over the original.
Remember that little booklet I stated the DVD included to explain the Superbit line? It provided a little graphic that compared the space distribution on a “standard” DVD and on a Superbit disc. Interestingly, we see that though the picture area jumped way up, the amount allowed for sound actually decreased. It was a slight drop, and I doubt that this simple image totally explains the distribution for all of the discs, but it was a telling sight. Even though the Superbit discs add DTS 5.1 sound to their original Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, they get less space in which to work.
How did this translate to the actual auditory experience of Air Force One? As with the picture, the sound seemed to virtually duplicate what I heard during the old Dolby Digital-only DVD. Brace yourself for more repetition!
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.
How did the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks differ? In very minor ways, if at all. I felt that the DTS mix sounded a little richer and showed mildly deeper bass. It also replicated the score with slightly greater brightness and presence. However, the variations remained quite minor. I’d prefer to listen to the DTS track in the future, but I didn’t feel it offered any significant improvements over the DD affair.
The original DVD of Air Force One offered only a smattering of extras. In addition to a trailer and some text production notes in the booklet, we got a mediocre audio commentary from director Wolfgang Petersen. It wasn’t a great package, but it sure beat the Superbit release, which included absolutely nothing.
This came as no surprise, since the Superbit discs go for movie-based purity. They tout themselves as devoting all their space to the film itself and leave off the various gewgaws. There wasn’t much to omit in this case, but it’s gone nonetheless. I do find the omission of the original production notes to seem odd, however; since when did a paper insert affect the bit rate of a DVD? However, CTS promised an absolutely bare-bones effort, so I can’t gripe too much, despite this bizarre aspect of the package.
Note that the Superbit AFO also lacks any kind of interesting animation or pictures in its menus. Frankly, this seemed weird as well. The original disc just had a still photo of Ford as the main menu’s backdrop; would it have taken all that much disc space to include it again? And was there not room enough to list little text identifiers for the various chapters in the “Scene Selections” menu? Whereas the old one provided comments like “Sending a Fax” and “Releasing Radek”, this one just lists numbers. Granted, the DVD’s insert card provides descriptions, but these would be much more convenient on the disc itself. They still found the room for animated CTS and Superbit introductions at the start of the disc, and the DTS trailer also appears, so it’s not like this DVD dropped all of these sorts of things.
One note about the DVD’s packaging: Air Force One comes in a nice silver-colored slipcase that prominently features the “Superbit” logo. However, the art provided on the case itself almost exactly reproduced that of the original DVD. The front cover looked identical, while the back differed only because of the alteration of features and specs, plus it lost the UPC, since that’s on the slipcase. The spines also differ; the old one had some small pictures, whereas the new package just lists the movie’s name. It seems odd that they barely altered the artwork; I guess they figure no copies will be on shelves without the slipcase. If you do see AFO on its own, you may want to check the back to ensure you find the version you want; some stores that sell used DVDs may lack the slipcase, so this would be the easiest way to verify the version you get.
As a film, Air Force One offers a reasonably exciting and entertaining experience. It lacks the depth or spark to make it a great piece of work, but it delivers some good action and thrills. As a DVD, this new “Superbit” release provided virtually the same fine picture and sound found on the original disc. The image seemed a little brighter, but not helpfully so, while the DTS audio appeared slightly more powerful, but not to a significant degree. It totally lacked any extras and it did not seem to improve upon the old edition.
In my opinion, the prior DVD of Air Force One looked and sounded identical to this one for the most part, plus it tossed in a decent audio commentary that the Superbit disc dropped. With a list price that’s eight dollars lower, anyone who doesn’t own AFO but wants it should go for the original disc. Those who already have the old one should keep it and spend the money elsewhere; the new “Superbit” version of Air Force One doesn’t merit a purchase.