Debra Goldman’s Postscript: Power Politics

One thing you can say for Air Force One, its villains come from this planet. They’re from the old Evil Empire, to be exact, which, luckily for Hollywood, is still the No. 1 supplier of earthly catastrophe for American good guys to overcome.
But don’t worry. In every other way, the narrative of Air Force One launches as big an assault on credulity as Con Air, Face/Off or any of its blow-’em-up blockbuster brethren. By the time the neo-Bolshies’ plot to hijack the president’s plane and secure the release of their vicious leader has been foiled, Harrison Ford, playing Commander in Chief James Marshall, has offed a handful of terrorists, masterminded a fuel dump, liberated other hostages, endured numerous skull-crushing punches, piloted a crippled jumbo jet and been towed midair like a kite by the rescue plane. All without taking off his suit jacket.
And those aren’t even the implausible parts. The real howler comes in the first few minutes of the film, when President Marshall congratulates New Russia on the success of their joint mission to save democracy. His eyes are haunted by the miseries of the refugee camp, his voice trembling with suppressed emotion, as he vows, never again. From now on, he blurts out, America will fight tyranny wherever it raises its ugly head. Without consulting a task force of advisors! Without convening a focus group! Just because he’s such a decent guy and it’s the right thing to do! Right then, we know we’ve left the real world behind and need only sit back and enjoy the inevitable mayhem to come.
Of course, to chide the makers of Air Force One for the film’s implausibility is to miss the point, or would be, if the movie had a point. This film doesn’t ask audiences to suspend disbelief. It demands they actively embrace it, the better to enjoy the feel-good victory of a two-fisted battle with the forces of evil. As the filmmakers know, if you’re trying to sell a president who is wise, faithful, principled and strong, you had better wrap him in a mythic fantasy. Otherwise, no one will buy it.
Needless to say, our real-life president looks pretty shabby next to a cinematic chief executive who makes Teddy Roosevelt seem like a wuss. Decisive where his real- life counterpart waffles, faithful where the other is faithless, Marshall is the Good Boomer president: a sensitive dad, a devoted partner to two women (his wife and his vice president), a Vietnam war hero who’s kept faith with his Nautilus. No way a Big Mac chowhound and draft dodger like Bill Clinton could ever blast his way past a bunch of killer terrorists.
Based on the box-office returns, President Marshall’s bare-knuckled bravery has won over the electorate. Perhaps the American people are trying to tell us something in these election results.
Maybe the film’s success means that deep down in their still-innocent hearts, the cynical citizen-consumers who give Bill Clinton high approval ratings yearn for a politics of virtue, practiced by men whose convictions are as strong as their jaws.
On the other hand, the popularity of Air Force One may mean nothing at all. It reveals little about Americans’ political “mood”-except to suggest that there is none. President Marshall is a post-political hero, like Batman. Or is he a pre-political hero, like Hercules? Same difference.
All we can glean from the film’s success, like its fellow blockbusters, is that people like a lot of fairly bloodless violence and special-effects disasters. But you knew that already. For those who haven’t gotten their full summer’s quotient of careening aircraft and exploding fireballs, Air Force One fits the bill.
Still, all the film really says about contemporary American society is that there isn’t very much to say about it.