Harrison Ford as the President of the United States is such a perfect piece of casting that it’s at once a fantasy and a joke: The joke is how perfect the fantasy is. As President James Marshall, the hero of the richly tense and satisfying new hijack thriller, Air Force One (Columbia), Ford is the chief executive as red-blooded liberal superjock — a Bill Clinton who served in Vietnam and has never waffled since. Standing before a diplomatic assembly in Moscow, Marshall, dripping with conviction, gives a speech in which he commits America to crushing terrorists and dictators wherever they appear. ”We will no longer be afraid,” he says, and then, eyes narrowing a bit for the benefit of our enemies, he adds, ”It’s your turn to be afraid.” Here, at last, is what America has yearned for in a leader: the heart and mind of Franklin Delano Roosevelt joined with the cojones of Clint Eastwood.

In addition to being a daredevil of empathy, Marshall is also a really nice guy. After his speech, he just wants to relax on Air Force One and watch a videotaped football game (assuming, that is, that he can keep his pesky staff from briefing him on who won) and to spend some quality cuddle time with his wife (Wendy Crewson) and 12-year-old daughter (Liesel Matthews). The plane itself is a marvelous contraption, a two-tiered bunker jet secure enough to withstand the jolt of a nuclear blast yet infused with the honey gold lighting of a posh hotel bar. It’s just as we’re settling in there that the movie hits us with a really big surprise. Do you think I’m talking about a vicious terrorist attack? Well, yes, of course. (You were expecting Janet Reno?) The real shock, however, is that as the Russian nationalist fanatics who have smuggled themselves aboard leap up from their seats, grab machine guns, and begin to pump lead into the passengers, it’s a genuinely unsettling, dread-ridden moment. Air Force One presents Ford, with his beautiful unforced gravity, as the Daddy of Our Country and then rips him from the sanctum of American security — Air Force One, a kind of zoom-rocket White House. It’s a place we don’t want to see violated.

The director, Wolfgang Petersen (In the Line of Fire), works with such clean, swift precision that it takes a while to realize that he’s cooking up another entry in the Die Hard-on-a-plane genre (Executive Decision, Turbulence, etc.). We all know the drill. A psychotic mastermind who takes the passengers hostage. A hero who hides in the plane’s bowels, creeping about like a cat burglar as he picks off the terrorists one by one. The hero’s trusty comrade on the ground — in this case, Glenn Close as a charismatically starchy Vice President. What lends the old setups new vigor, even passion, is the slyly witty and inspiring spectacle of the chief executive as action renegade. In an era when politicians, notably baby-boomer Leaders of the Free World, have been mythologized as paragons of inaction, Air Force One puts Marshall’s line-in-the-sand resolve to a cruelly intimate test: He says he won’t negotiate with terrorists, yet here they are holding a gun to his wife and daughter. The fate of America’s collective will is riding on how deftly Harrison Ford can use his wits and his fists.

The movie has its bloody jolts, its leaps into explosive, James Bondish hyperbole (the moments in which Ford and company dangle off the end of the plane are truly scary), yet Petersen grounds it with scenes of disarming quiet and with the ferocious physical logic of his staging. The plot may be a comic book, but you always know exactly where you are. There’s even a mini-constitutional crisis, as Close’s VP squares off against Dean Stockwell’s prim territorial defense secretary. Gary Oldman, as the head villain, an UberCommunist who despises Western freedom as if it were poison air, does some real acting beneath the mugging. Sporting a goatee and a Volga-boatman accent, he makes the sado-terrorist sweaty and desperate, a life-size crazy who feels the fear of his victims and then kills them anyway. This is the rare summer thriller in which death actually stings.

Though I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call Air Force One Hitchcockian, the flair of Petersen’s direction is the way he seduces you into greater and greater flights of preposterousness. By the end, even the pop patriotism is charged with conviction. Harrison Ford’s twisted-with-resolve heroic scowl lets you know that the President is fighting for two things at once: himself and his country. The movie’s most irresistible fantasy is that it would never occur to him to draw a line between the two. A

Air Force One
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