Get Off My Plane and Lawn: Air Force One Turns 20

One of the music cues Donald Trump used during his presidential campaign  was from the soundtrack for Air Force One, a movie in which America’s core institutions are taken over by a man whose only loyalty is to Russia. There’s also a point in the movie when the clear best choice is to overrule the president’s emotion-based decisions by using the 25th Amendment to declare him incapacitated. Really, the only implausible thing in Air Force One is that it all starts with Russia and the United States working together to repress a totalitarian regime in favor of democracy. 

The movie is 20 years old this week — as old now as Star Wars was then. Harrison Ford had become a worldwide superstar several times over in the meantime with the subsequent Star Warses, the Indiana Joneses, and hits like Witness, Patriot Games, The Fugitive, and Presumed Innocent. “Special editions” of all three Star Warses had been released earlier in the year; between those, Air Force One, and The Devil’s Own, movies starring Harrison Ford earned $467 million in the U.S. in 1997, or 7.4% of the total box office. Wolfgang Peterson, despite being German as all hell, could hardly have chosen a better star to play the American president.

The actual president at the time was Bill Clinton, who liked the film but said the real Air Force One didn’t have a parachute ramp or an escape pod (but I bet it did and he just had to say that for security reasons). Like his rugged fictional counterpart, Clinton had a wife and teenage daughter and was a popular president at the moment, with a 57% approval rating. (His second-term average was 61%.) Unlike Pres. James Marshall, Clinton had no combat training and probably would have been fairly useless in a fight (even against Gary Oldman) — though to be fair the only real U.S. president we’ve had who could single-handedly save Air Force One from terrorists was probably Teddy Roosevelt. Trump, obviously, would have shat himself, given the hijackers what they wanted, and then told Fox News none of it ever happened. 

Air Force One was a big hit, earning $173 million in the U.S. (that’d be around $335 million at today’s ticket prices), and another $142 million overseas. Ford’s international stardom undoubtedly helped at the foreign box office, but it was also shrewd to play up the film’s Americanness (which international audiences liked in those days) while keeping the content apolitical. Pres. James Mitchell’s party affiliation is never mentioned, and his only known policy (“We won’t negotiate with terrorists”) is boilerplate, allowing viewers to project their own beliefs onto him. He’s good with a gun, so he must be a conservative; he’s reluctant to kill, so he must be a liberal. He’s an Everypresident. 

(Incidentally, this was German director Wolfgang Petersen’s sixth English-language film and already the second — after In the Line of Fire — to center around threats to the U.S. president. But later he made disaster-at-sea films The Perfect Storm and Poseidon, so maybe he just likes matching pairs.)

As far as I can determine, Air Force One was the first president-focused Hollywood film to cast the president as an action hero. Previous movie presidents tended to prove their courage by delivering impassioned speeches and having tense phone conversations, not personally snapping the necks of Russian terrorists. It’s unlikely that earlier movie audiences would have taken a movie seriously if it had shown the president engaged in such undignified, unstatesmanlike behavior. 

But America’s perception of how the president is supposed to act had shifted by 1997. It had been a watershed moment when, during the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton had played saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show and made appearances on MTV. It was unheard of at that time for presidents (or even major-party candidates) to engage so directly with pop culture or with young people. Clinton’s folksiness, relative youth (he was only 42 when elected), and fondness for McDonald’s loosened up our attitudes about presidential conduct. Maybe you could have passions, flaws, and quirks and still be a good leader.

Today, of course, it’s standard for sitting presidents and candidates to make the talk-show rounds, to appear in viral videos with comedians, to roast each other on Twitter. It’s also standard for movie presidents to be butt-kickers, not afraid to get their hands dirty. (It’s even become retroactive, with history-revising fiction like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.) We want our leaders to be regular people nowadays, not marble statues. That’s why it stings so much when you get one who’s neither a relatable human being nor a pedestal-worthy icon. But if Air Force One teaches us anything, it’s that the presidency is bigger than one man and can survive any threat, even well-funded Russian ones. 


When Air Force One was released, on July 25, 1997…

– It was an instant smash, raking in $37 million opening weekend (about $72 million at 2017 ticket prices). Fellow new release Good Burger made enough to take fifth place. Also at the multiplex were George of the Jungle, Men in Black, Contact, Nothing to Lose, Face/Off, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Disney’s Hercules. The big hit of the summer was The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which had amassed $223 million by this point after smashing the record for opening-weekend box office. The big embarrassing disaster of the season was Batman & Robin.

– People were still talking about the April 30 episode of Ellen DeGeneres’s sitcom, Ellen, in which her character had come out of the closet. Speaking of surprising behavior, there was also still a lot of buzz over Farrah Fawcett’s loopy June 6 appearance on Late Show with David Letterman

South Park would premiere on Comedy Central 19 days later, changing animated television forever. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Oz, and The Crocodile Hunter were all brand new, and Win Ben Stein’s Money and The View were about to debut. Meanwhile, Lois & Clark, Married… with Children, Wings, and Roseanne had recently ended their runs. 

– It was the era of summer music festivals, and the first Lilith Fair tour had started a few weeks earlier. On the radio, Hanson’s “MMMBop” and Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” were a constant presence. Radiohead’s OK Computer album was new too, though not getting a lot of radio airplay because listeners kept mistaking it for the sound of a dialup modem. 

– The top songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that week included “I’ll Be Missing You,” by Puff Daddy; “Bitch,” by Meredith Brooks; “Sunny Came Home,” by Shawn Colvin; “Return of the Mack,” by Mark Morrison; and “Look Into My Eyes,” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

– The U.K. had transferred control of Hong Kong over to China a few weeks earlier, ending a 99-year lease and, in the view of some, signaling the end of the British Empire. Six weeks later, the U.K. would suffer another devastating loss in the death of Princess Diana. 

– The Mayo Clinic had recently discovered that the popular diet drug fen-phen had deadly side effects. Tens of thousands of lawsuits resulted, costing the manufacturer (Wyeth) billions of dollars. 

– Kylie Jenner, daughter of Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner and Kris Jenner, was 16 days away from being born. Legendary actors Robert Mitchum and James Stewart had recently died, as had fashion designer Gianni Versace. 

Eric D. Snider lives in Portland.

Eric D. Snider has been a film critic since 1999, first for newspapers (when those were a thing) and then for the internet. He was born and raised in Southern California, lived in Utah in his 20s, then Portland, now Utah again. He is glad to meet you, probably.

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