1997's Air Force One was the logical culmination of a decade-long formula for action-adventure movies. The formula was established in Die Hard and its sequels, with plots built around an unarmed hero without specialized ninjaesque combat training taking on a large group of heavily armed, highly trained, and totally ruthless villains. All that decade, screenwriters would pitch their plot to producers as "Die Hard in a ... (fill in the blank)."
Air Force One was surely pitched in just this fashion - "Die Hard on a plane, but the plane is Air Force One, and the hero is the President." Attach Harrison Ford to the deal, and what can a producer say? Just "I love you, babe, and I mean that!"
Air Force One Is Taken
As our story opens, President James Marshall (Harrison Ford), in a speech in Moscow, puts world terrorists on notice that the United States will no longer look the other way while terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism wreak havoc on the innocent. His resolve will be tested before the day is out.
As Air Force One leaves for home, it is seized by a group of terrorists who gained entry disguised as a Russian film crew. They are indeed Russian, but they are hardliners who long to return to the old Soviet glory days. Their goal is to force the release of General Ivan Radek (Jurgen Prochnow), the brutal leader of the former Soviet state of Kazakhstan who had recently been seized by a joint US/Russian military team and imprisoned.
The leader of the team that seizes AF1, Ivan Korshunov, is played by Gary Typecast-as-Madman Oldman. To show us their inhuman ruthlessness, the terrorists slaughter most of the Secret Service detail and confine the passengers to a conference room where they will be killed one by one until their demands are met.
The Escape Pod
When Air Force One was released, there was a flurry of interest among the White House press corps in the question of whether or not the real Air Force One actually has an 'escape pod' to allow the President to escape from the airplane. While an amused White House communications office refused to discuss matters involving presidential security, fans and students of film-making recognized the escape pod for what it was - a plot device.
The screenwriter needed a way to keep the president onboard the plane and out of the hands of the terrorists while allowing the terrorists to believe the president was no longer on board. Voila. An escape pod. Jettisoned empty, the terrorists would believe the president had made his escape, while he's actually still lurking in the baggage compartment.
So the terrorists don't have the president. But they do still have First Lady Grace Marshall (Wendy Crewson) and presidential daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews), as well as the traveling contingent of the White House staff.
Meanwhile, Back at the White House...
Vice-President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) has taken charge in the White House Situation Room. She is being prodded and harried by 'I'm in charge' Defense Secretary Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell). The White House knows that Air Force One has been seized by terrorists, that they are demanding the release of Radek, and that the presidential escape pod has been found - empty. It's a confusing situation.
Where is the President?!
Actually, he's skulking in the baggage compartment. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, we see Mitchell rooting through the luggage for his daughter's cellphone. The man who for years made phone calls by telling a staffer to 'get me so-and-so' is paging through the phone manual trying to figure out how to work it. And then without access to phone numbers, he can only call the White House switchboard and try to convince the operator that he really is the President and needs to speak to the Situation Room.
All Varieties of Action-Adventure
Air Force One hits every style of action-adventure, from fist fights and shootouts to missile launches and mid-air explosions. In true action hero fashion, President Mitchell takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
Did I mention Mitchell had been a Vietnam fighter pilot? As was also illustrated in the movie Independence Day, there's a new law in movie-making: when you tell the audience your president is a pilot, before the credits roll, he's going to fly the plane.
Air Force One was directed by Wolfgang Peterson and written by Andrew W. Marlowe.