Entertainment Weekly

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Article

'Air Force One' reality check

Posted on

Claudette Barius

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Harrison Ford is not the President of the United States.

Sure, his butt-kicking executive decisions in the new high-flying blockbuster Air Force One — about the hijacking of the First Airplane by a group of Russian nationalists (led by Gary Oldman doing his best Yakov Smirnoff routine) — will make you stand up and cheer for democracy. But face it, we’re not likely to catch Bill Clinton going mano a mano, at 15,000 feet no less, with Kazakhstani bad guys.

”This is definitely just a movie, and we obviously took some liberties,” says Ford, who in real life has been known to hang out at his Wyoming ranch with a certain honest-to-goodness Leader of the Free World. ”I didn’t base my performance on President Clinton or on any other President, living or dead.”

That’s probably a good thing. We can all rest easier knowing that our highest elected official isn’t counting on right hooks and uppercuts to round out his foreign policy agenda. But, as with all movies that dangle the reality carrot to speed the plot along, Air Force One does fly close to the facts at times — and more than just a little. Of course, sprinkling in juicy morsels of The Truth goes a long way toward making believers out of moviegoers.

In fact, think of Air Force One as Hollywood’s answer to realpolitik: Boomer-in-Chief James Marshall is a perfect ’90s leader. He loves underdog football teams and Budweiser, and he’s got a soft spot for vice presidents with the personality of melba toast (Glenn Close is Al Gore). He has a smart, tough wife and exactly the kind of postfeminist kid you’d expect would be named after a Joni Mitchell song.

But the movie’s real star is the eminently believable title character, and that’s what audiences will be buzzing about. The lavishly constructed three-level presidential flying machine, with its cabin built to scale, is as close to accuracy as AFO‘s production designers could make it, considering how tight-lipped the government is about the real thing. ”There weren’t any blueprints or floor plans available, so we had to watch CNN to see what the inside looked like,” says director Wolfgang Petersen (In the Line of Fire). ”That plane’s the most classified flying document in the world.”

Adds Air Force One‘s first-time screenwriter, Andrew W. Marlowe: ”It’s very difficult to call the Secret Service and say, ‘If you’re a terrorist and you want to get on board Air Force One, what’s the best way to go about it? And is there a presidential escape pod?’ The Lincoln Bedroom was a check away, but getting on Air Force One was impossible.”

Virtually impossible, anyway. At a Wyoming party last August, Ford asked Clinton for a tour of the plane, and permission was granted (the closest the White House came to actually sanctioning the film). The next day, Ford, Petersen, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and production designer William Sandell were on board. ”We had to stay with the tour,” Sandell says. ”Those people are heavily armed, you know?”

In the end, Air Force One wound up looking a heck of a lot like Air Force One. There are the tapioca-colored seats and the fuzzy blankets sporting the presidential seal; the Executive Suite with twin beds for the First Couple; the digital clocks displaying three time zones. “From a pure entertainment point of view,” says Petersen, “a movie that looks real gives you more chills than a movie that doesn’t. And we’re damn close to reality here.”

Actually, that depends on whom you ask.

“A lot of what you see on screen is Hollywood fantasy,” says Lieut. Col. Napoleon B. Byars, an Air Force spokesman. “They did a good job, but let’s just say they didn’t get everything right.”

So how close did the movie come to reality? Here are the answers–along with some plot details that you may want to skip until after you’ve seen the movie.

IN THE MOVIE, FORD’S CAPTORS BELIEVE HE’S FLED THE PLANE BY WAY OF AN ESCAPE POD (HE ACTUALLY STAYS BEHIND TO FIGHT OFF HIS CAPTORS). DOES SUCH A POD REALLY EXIST IN THE PLANE’S UNDERBELLY?

The official word is no. “There’s nothing to it at all,” says Byars. “It’s purely a license Hollywood has taken.”

That’s not the way Petersen sees it. He claims to have received confirmation in recent weeks from “a very reliable source” that such a pod actually exists. “It just makes too much sense,” he says. “And when we were touring the plane, the cargo hold was one area that was off-limits to us. I left thinking, There’s a pod down there, there’s a pod down there!”

Even if the pod is a fabrication, it wasn’t invented for Air Force One. There’s a precedent in 1981’s Escape From New York, in which the President bails out of his plane over Manhattan. “I just assumed the public would buy it here, too,” says scriptwriter Marlowe.

IS THE PLANE BULLETPROOF, MISSILE RESISTANT, AND ABLE TO WITHSTAND THE PULSE OF A NUCLEAR BLAST?

AFO does have sophisticated electronic jamming devices to protect the plane against certain nuclear reactions, and it can make evasive maneuvers on autopilot, a countermeasure against in-air missile attacks. And Byars says the plane’s shell is reinforced “inside and out from every perspective imaginable in a craft that also has to be airborne.”

COULD THE PRESIDENT MAKE A CELL-PHONE CALL FROM THE CARGO AREA MID-FLIGHT?

Air Force One has 87 phones, some of which connect calls to anyone anywhere on earth, in space, or even in ocean-deep nuclear submarines. But that cell-phone call Ford places to his Veep while trying to elude his captors would be impossible at 30,000 feet. “At that altitude, he’d simply be out of range,” says Air Force first lieutenant Neil Nipper.

DOES AIR FORCE ONE REALLY GET LIVE CNN COVERAGE?

Occasionally. Unlike most planes, the President’s has 16 video monitors that can receive satellite feed, allowing for cable access in some locations. It also has 11 videocassette recorders.

ARE THERE HUGE CONFERENCE ROOMS ON THE PLANE?

Though the movie’s flying Oval Office and living quarters accurately reflect the look of the real plane, “the executive boardroom only seats eight,” Byars says, “not the 50 or so in the movie.”

CAN AIR FORCE ONE REFUEL IN MIDAIR?

The plane can fly 9,600 miles without refueling (enough to get the Prez from Washington, D.C., to Calcutta, no problem). “Refueling’s possible for emergencies,” Nipper says. “But it never happens.”

ARE THERE ENOUGH PARACHUTES FOR EVERYONE?

In fact, there are no parachutes on the real Air Force One, Nipper says. “Even if there were, there’s no platform to jump from” — that cargo-bay door in the movie is yet another Hollywood creation — “and 747s move too fast for civilian jumping anyway.”

COULD THE PRESIDENT REALLY FLY THE PLANE IN AN EMERGENCY?

“You can do amazing things in a 747 on autopilot,” Byars says. But Ford, a licensed pilot himself, begs to differ. “As Indiana Jones said to his father when he was asked if he could fly: ‘Fly? Yes. Land? No.'”

The Air Force obviously has good reason for keeping quiet about the details of its flagship aircraft. A terrorist hijacking of Air Force One would be the mother of all coups. But could it happen?

“I guess we could ask the hypothetical ‘what ifs’ until the end comes,” says Nipper, who has been aboard the President’s plane on several occasions, “but we could not have more security than we do. There is no next level.”

Former Secret Service agent Bob Snow, a technical consultant on the movie, says the actual security procedures are tougher than those in the film. Still, he says, there’s always that one-in-a-million chance. “But if it did [happen], we could only hope that Harrison Ford would be President.”

Snow would also be happy if the hijackers tried to pass themselves off as journalists, as they do in the movie. Only official members of the White House press corps may fly on Air Force One, and only after they’ve been fingerprinted and cleared with an extensive background check. Still, no security system is infallible. “One never believes situations like this are possible until they occur,” Ford says, “but get a traitorous Secret Service agent, some diabolical Russian terrorists, and a lot of guns, and anything’s possible.”

And what’s not possible in life is certainly doable on film — if you spend enough money. Which is where the biggest reality gap of all comes into play. According to a House subcommittee report, Air Force One costs $40,250 an hour to operate (the Air Force says it’s more like $35,000 an hour). Air Force One cost even more, at least hourly. The movie, which cost an estimated $78 million before marketing, was in production 12 hours a day for 90 days, an average of $72,222 an hour. Leave it to Hollywood to outspend the Pentagon.

Running the movie plane was small change compared with what the movie’s star made. For three months of work, Ford got a reported $20 million, exactly 100 times the real President’s annual salary. What’s up with that, President Ford?

The thought seems to amuse him. “Well, mine’s against the back end,” he says with a laugh, referring to the Hollywood practice of paying stars a percentage of a film’s profits. “Maybe if the President could work out a similar arrangement, he’d do just as well.”

Comments