Star Power Steers 'Air Force One'

Harrison Ford is box-office key for story high on adventure, low on substance

Look to the skies! Airborne entertainments are definitely in style, from the criminal mischief of "Con Air" to the optimistic space ride of "Contact" and the flying-saucer shenanigans of "Men in Black."

Presidents are also fashionable at the movies. True, last year's "Independence Day" treated the chief executive skeptically, and "Absolute Power" and "Mars Attacks!" were even more irreverent. But the presidency rebounds in "Contact," with Bill Clinton joining the action via TV news footage - a circumstance that displeased the White House, which didn't authorize the filmmakers to edit his image into their story.

And in what has become a minitrend, CNN has been playing a starring role on the wide screen. But after the recent premire of "Contact," in which numerous appearances by CNN personalities drew criticism, the network has temporarily barred its staff from appearing in movies, according to CNN spokesman Steve Haworth.

Those are some of the developments making minor waves at the movies this summer.

For better or worse, "Air Force One" brings them all together. The main setting is the president's plane. On board is the chief executive, no vacillating bureaucrat but a take-charge hero. Down below are millions of anxious Americans - and an army of CNN reporters ready to update them (and us) whenever the plot grows complicated, or too expensive for the movie to actually show.

The picture starts with a violent commando operation by American and Russian forces. The target is a dictator in Kazakstan, now free of Soviet control but still far from democracy. We meet President James Marshall as he defends the raid in a speech - and promises to repeat it if necessary, shoring up world freedom with American strength. Cabinet members may complain, but he values right-minded action over fleeting popularity polls. He's putting the chief back in chief executive.

Flying home with his wife and daughter, Marshall just wants to watch TV and relax. But a terrorist group has different plans - hijacking Air Force One and threatening to kill hostages until the Kazak tyrant is restored to power. Marshall escapes their clutches, but there aren't many places to hide on an airplane, so we know he'll soon be fighting for his life. More to the point, he's not just a statesman but a family man, too. His loved ones are in danger, and he won't rest until they're safe.

It would take a far more intelligent movie than "Air Force One" to credibly explore the issues raised by this hyperactive plot. For starters, are abrupt executive-branch policy changes really such a great idea? And in an emergency, doesn't the president have responsibilities to his country - and his world - as well as to his immediate family?

'Air Force One" doesn't even try to deal with such questions thoughtfully, but it has a great time fooling around with them. It even shows occasional glimmerings of imaginative scriptwriting, as when the villain suggests there's no essential difference between what he's doing to the president's entourage and what the United States military did to Iraqis in the Persian Gulf War.

Government buffs will also enjoy the movie's wry dialogue with real-life political leaders. Is the macho secretary of defense really modeled on former Cabinet member Alexander Haig, whose remark about being "in charge" made headlines during a Reagan administration crisis? Is the Vietnam heroism of President Marshall meant as a rebuke to President Clinton for opting out of military service in the '60s? Only the screenwriters know for sure, but moviegoers can while away the boring scenes by pondering these questions on their own.

The marketing campaign for "Air Force One" is based largely on Harrison Ford's star power, which hit new heights when "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" struck box-office gold. This campaign could backfire, since the new movie is longer on hoked-up adventure and shorter on believability.

For the film to earn healthy grosses beyond its first couple of weekends, audiences will have to take it as a two-hour goof, more in the spirit of an Indiana Jones adventure than a New World Order fable. Boosting its chance of success is sensational acting by Gary Oldman, as the cold-eyed terrorist who stalks around the plane muttering about Mother Russia, and Glenn Close, as a vice president so vice presidential that her gender isn't mentioned once. Dean Stockwell is also excellent as the secretary of defense.

"Air Force One" was directed by action specialist Wolfgang Petersen, who honed his ability for close-quarters filmmaking in "Das Boot," set on a submarine almost as cramped as the president's plane. Much of the movie looks like it was filmed in a motel, but Petersen shouldn't be blamed. Claustrophobia comes with this territory, and he handles it as well as anyone in the business.

*'Air Force One' is rated R. It contains a great deal of violence, harrowing suspense, and vulgarities.

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