Air Force One (1997): All the Tropes!

This will be a spoiler-filled post!

I was born in the late 1980s so I think that makes me a 90s kid. During the 90s, there were a lot of great movies for kids: a bunch of great Disney films, including The Lion King, which is still a definite classic (and if Mufasa dying doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you’re a robot), Home Alone was watched at least once a year in our household (which obvious led to my love of unrestrained violence), and Space Jam is still a big favorite (Michael Jordan played basketball with Bugs Bunny; number one 90s nostalgia movie). There were others that I didn’t get into until after I was an adult: Hook is confirmed to still be good when you’re in your mid-twenties, Hocus Pocus only gets better with time, and Jumanji still holds up, including its silly sequels (that are also really good, by the way). And hey, two Robin Williams movies? That’s not a coincidence!

However, one of my favorite 90s movies is definitely not a movie for children. There’s a ton of gun violence and a lot of bleeding/dead people. Gary Oldman is completely believable and terrifying as the villain. There’s some profanity in it (though I can’t really say I caught any of it, since I can’t recall a line with a “bad” word in it).

Air Force One (1997) sticks in my mind as my first “grownup” movie and probably my first rated “R” movie. I remember it fondly as Han Solo, as America’s best president, fights Russians and wins. “Get off my plane!” is the most memorable line in the movie for me. I always thought it was just me and my family; surely this movie is just a movie that has only enjoyed out of pure nostalgia by me and my family. In college, I met a woman who was also fond of this movie, and even wrote a compelling essay regarding its perfection (in relation to other action movies, of course). This past week, I watched this movie over again; I was feeling particularly lazy as it was an extremely hot day, and it came up randomly in a conversation between me and Taylor. So, I looked up where you could watch it (it’s free on Amazon Prime right now!) and suddenly, we were away on Air Force One with Indiana Jones.

This movie had so many plots and tropes, it was easy to feel a little confused! You can scroll through TVTropes to look at them all; all quotes below are either from the TVTropes page or directly from Air Force One itself. I’ll highlight the more obvious, more plot centric tropes that I encountered.

I will now go into detailed plot lines and quote directly from the movie. Thanks for reading!

First, let’s talk about the overall plot of the movie. It’s basically “Die Hard on Air Force One and President Harrison Ford is taking back his plane. That’s the entire movie in one short sentence“, which is fine, because I really like Die Hard and revenge movies, so I’m okay with that. The theme of the movie is actually a little more philosophical: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? It’s not only literally said at least twice, but comes up quite often in terms protagonist’s and villain’s thought processes.

The movie opens on an elite crew breaking in and capturing evil Russian dictator, General Radek. His crimes are never explicitly said, but it is implied that hundreds if not thousands were killed as a result of his actions.

Three months later, Harrison Ford aka James Marshall, the president of the United States, gives a New Era Speech, in which he outlines America’s new anti-terrorism policy to an adoring, cheerful crowd in Russia.

Marshall: Never again will I allow our political self-interest to deter us from doing what we know to be morally right. Atrocity and terror are not political weapons. And to those who would use them, your day is over. We will never negotiate. We will no longer tolerate and we will no longer be afraid. It’s your turn to be afraid.

Personally, knowing politics the way I do now, I know this would never happen in real life, but it’s always nice to see someone heroic just say what his heroic intentions are, and how good they seem to be. End terrorists who are morally wrong? That’s all superheroes do.

Once on the plane, his 12-year-old daughter, Alice asks why he didn’t take her to see the refugee camp. Alice says she is ready for some grownup stuff already. Talk about some massive foreshadowing!

Then, the camera follow Agent Gibbs around, what Taylor dubbed as the “traitor camera”. And yes, it turns out, there is a mole on the plane; Gibbs kills three or four Secret Service agents immediately and starts the hijacking.

Once the plane is hijacked, you have a couple of Heroic Sacrifices: an agent or guard takes a bullet intended for Alice and her mother (the President’s wife), Grace; this may or may not have been intended but the outcome is the same. The next one are the pilots of AF1, as one states “No matter what happens, we’re landing this aircraft, is that understood?” They are all killed as they try to land at Ramstein AFB.

Now, here we are, half an hour into the movie. The pilots have touched the plane to the ground, the escape pod with the President was launched. Troops are coming to confront the Russians. Is the movie over already? No, of course it isn’t silly!

Of course, there are some Senseless Sacrifices; they are the Secret Service agents who fought their way through the plane to the escape pod with the President, only to have him stay on board to fight for his family (and I guess everyone else on board). After all, he is an Action Politician, Marshall is not going to have his plane taken sitting down, he’s going to do something about it!

Perfect, this is the movie I signed up for!

Gary Oldman, who plays the head of the Russians, is named Korshunov and co manage to get the plane airborne. By this time, we know that they have somehow infiltrated the plane by killing the original news crew and taking their identities.

Korshunov calls the White House and gets the Vice President, Bennett, who is played by Glenn Close. She wants to know what he wants and he goes on a small Motive Rant:

Bennett: What are your intentions? Korshunov: What arrogance to think you could ever understand my intentions. Bennett: I want to understand what it is that you want. Korshunov: What do I want…When Mother Russia becomes one great nation again, when the capitalists are dragged from the Kremlin and shot in the street, when our enemies run and hide in fear at the mention of our name, and when America begs our forgiveness…on that great day of deliverance, you will know what I want.

Eventually, he does say that he wants Radek released from jail; to ensure this, Korshunov will execute one person every half hour, starting with the national security advisor.

To add onto his evil-ness, Korshunov is also a Misogynist, because of course he is. He mocks Bennett’s gender by taunting, “How’s your blouse?” He ends the call by reminding the President should do what Korshunov wants because he has the president’s wife, and his daughter, and his baseball glove!

Later, Marshall gets a hold of a phone and calls the White House, and the customer service representative assumes the man calling her is a prank caller messing with her, telling her that he is the President. She responds with “And I’m the First Lady“. He tells her to trace the call, and she realizes he’s right and connects him to VP Bennett.

He talks to them for a little while, but he is found by one of the Russian terrorists and slips the phone in his pocket while still on the line. He tells the cabinet to shoot AF1 because it is equipped with an automatic defense system that would maneuver away from any missiles that are fired upon it. The cabinet wonders: is the president telling us to order the jet fighter planes, who have been following the plane since the Ramstein AFB, to fire at AF1? VP Bennett says that’s exactly what he wants you to do, and to do it.

General: Is he saying what I think he’s saying? Bennett: If we’re going to act, we have to act now. Dean: It’s too risky. Bennett: The president is up there with a gun to his head! General: He’s asking us to do that to Air Force One? Bennett: He’s not asking. Your commander-in-chief has issued a direct order. Do it!

Marshall over takes the Russian Terrorist that found him, and after a struggle, manages to dispatch him, though he is “understandably unsettled after doing it, considering it is probably the first time he has killed with his bare hands”.

Korshunov, angry that this mystery person is killing his friends (aka fellow terrorists) and generally eluding them, he cruelly kills the Press Secretary over the loudspeaker in order to bring the man out from hiding. After the Press Secretary dies, Korshunov says she is a casualty of war, and Grace, the First Lady, says that “This isn’t war. You just murdered an unarmed woman!” Korshunov shouts at her back: “You, who murdered a hundred thousand Iraqis just to save a nickel on a gallon of gas, are going to lecture me on the rules of war?! Don’t!“, which, honestly, true, but there is no doubt Korshunov is an absolute terrible person.

Marshall, with a renewed desperation to get the plane to land now, gets an idea to try to dump the fuel on the jet so that the terrorists have to land early. He is walked through it by a Chief Mechanic but of course, when literally it comes down to the wire, the phone battery dies (isn’t that so relatable though?) and he has to correctly choose which color wires to cut.

Of course he does it perfectly, and the fuel is being dumped. The terrorists panic and call the Cabinet back, asking to be refueled; luckily, AF1 can be refueled in mid-air. Korshunov demands that he be refueled immediately, or he will kill a hostage every minute. So, VP Bennett agrees.

Meanwhile, Marshall makes it to the room where the hostages are being held, and they hatch a plan to escape. While the plane is being refueled, the refueling plane will ask AF1 to come down to a parachute-able height, and the hostages will escape via parachute. Hopefully, they’re in airspace of a friendly country! To do this, they’ll have to fax the White House (because the phone is dead, and the radios are being controlled by the terrorists).

They manage to get to the parachute ramp, and a lot of the hostages have escaped, however, one of the terrorists blows up the hatch, thus throwing off the pressurization of the plane, and forcing some terrorists and hostages to fly off the plane without a parachute. This also somehow blows up the refueling tanker, and thus the plane is on its last legs, fuel-wise.

Unfortunately, the terrorists have now captured the President, and Korshunov and Marshall finally come face to face. There is some beating, and Marshall finds a Conveniently Placed Sharp Thing to get himself freed from his restraints. Before he frees himself, he agrees to let Radek go, being forced to choose between Radek’s freedom and Alice’s life. Grace “pointed out he promised to let them go if the President cooperated”, but Korshunov simply replies, “Forgive me, I lied.” This compels Marshall to finally cut his duct tape restraints off to fight off Korshunov.

During the fight, Korshunov gets his gun to shoot at Marshall, but Lloyd Shepard, Marshall’s Chief of Staff, dives in front of the President to take the bullet. Korshunov escapes to the parachute ramp, with Grace as hostage. Korshunov is throwing out all the remaining parachutes (how many parachutes are on this plane????) to ensure no one else will make it off the plane alive.

Another fight ensues, and eventually, Marshall deploys the parachute that Korshunov is wearing, while he has wrapped Korshunov’s neck with a parachute strap, effectively breaking his neck, killing him.

While this all is happening, Radek was being released, in the middle of the night, seemingly in a prison with all his followers. His helicopter is there, also being piloted and crewed by Radek supporters. Just after the prison doors close on him, and he is seeming free to board the aircraft, Marshall rescinds his release because he has just killed Korshunov, and orders Radek to be imprisoned again. Radek runs for freedom and is shot in the process. There was much rejoicing from the Russian side because of Radek’s demise.

However, Russian fighter pilots, who are loyal to Radek, decide to attack Air Force One for no explained reason besides hate for the USA and didn’t expect any consequences. Because the countermeasures were already deployed earlier, they could not dodge a missile, and a US fighter pilot flies into the missile’s path, effectively sacrificing himself to save AF1. I said to Taylor, they need to name a day after that guy!

Now that all the terrorist drama is seemingly over, a new plot enters: the plane has no pilot! And of course, now Marshall takes the reins. I was pretty shocked there wasn’t a “Protagonist has to fly a plane larger than he is used to” trope, but maybe they just haven’t named it yet. It is determined that the plane cannot land, due to one of the Russian fighter pilot’s shots, and all the parachutes are gone thanks to Korshunov, so they have to find yet another way off the plane.

Now, obviously I don’t know the first thing about planes, but can’t you just slow down the plane and bring it closer to the ground? It’s not like the landing gear was damaged, as the trope usually goes. I don’t know, maybe they couldn’t slow the plane down? Moving on.

They devise a really cool offloading method, which includes a second plane and essentially a zipline between the two planes. People, who I assume is are Air Force trained persons, will shuttle back and forth between the two planes via zipline with a hostage in tow.

Marshall insists on all the other hostages going first, including the injured, and when the plane is too low, the Air Force person says there’s only time for one more transfer, insisting that this needs to be the President. Caldwell (who is played by the amazing William H. Macy) tells the President of course he has to be the one to go, and finally, Gibbs, who has been with the hostages this entire time, finallly “blows his cover when it’s only him, Marshall and Caldwell left on the plane and only one can be saved“.

Gibbs kills Caldwell, and the Air Force person, demanding that Marshall give him the last strap for the zipline.

Marshall: “I trusted you with my life!” Gibbs: “So will the next president!”

I thought this part was really foolish of Gibbs; he left the president to die, how is he going to keep his job as bodyguard? But of course, Taylor pointed out he would likely blame Caldwell for being the mole and keeping his job that way.

Marshall doesn’t give him the strap, obviously, and Gibbs is “ultimately left to die aboard the very aircraft he allowed to be hijacked“.

Gibbs is actually, I think, the only part of the plot that I am left thinking about after the movie ends. I always thought the Russians simply paid him for his betrayal, but actually, we’re never given his exact reasons for betraying his country and his job.

The President is reeled in by the plane that the zipline was attached to, and Liberty 2-4 is renamed to Air Force One, which is actually how it works; any USAF plane that the President is on is automatically renamed Air Force One.

The President reunites with his family and fades to black, but the huge rammifications of the actions in the movie are not revealed; what were Gibbs’ actual intentions, was it money or did it go deeper; who helped Korshunov and crew fake identities and files to get them onboard the plane; the Russian fighter pilots who were loyal to Radek shot upon a foreign superpower, thus effectively declaring war on the United States; of course, the act of hijacking the plane altogether, what security measures did they put in place after this whole debacle; and of course, did the President win his reelection? We’ll never know.

Anyway, thanks for coming with me on this journey into the tropes and plotlines of Air Force One, one of my favorite childhood movies! Please let me know what you thought of my post, and of course, the movie!

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