the way presidents influence pop culture is nothing new. The Nixon era in movies was represented by the law-and-order ethos of "Dirty Harry" as surely as it was by the Watergate-era cynicism of "Chinatown." The Reagan era brought back melodramas, like "Terms of Endearment," "Ordinary People" and "An Officer and a Gentleman," that would have been laughed off the screen a few years before.
But Bill Clinton is the first president to spawn movies that feature fictional presidents functioning as his stand-ins, movies made by directors fighting to define, and redefine, his image. So far this year, we've had the conservative demonization -- Clint Eastwood's "Absolute Power," a movie with fruit salad for brains that paints a portrait of Clinton as a boozing, womanizing weasel -- and the liberal apologia -- "Murder at 1600," in which a brave president willing to take tough, unpopular stands is being sold down the river by militaristic advisors who think he's soft.
And now comes "Air Force One," in some ways the loopiest of them all, certainly the most ungainly. The film is named, of course, for the commander in chief's deluxe plane, and the movie makes sure we know just what a nifty rig it is, equipped for everything from kicking back with a beer and a videotape of the big game to launching World War III. But if you've ever sat in a jet waiting on the runway, feeling it lumbering along in place and then bucking and shaking when it's cleared for take-off, you know what it's like to sit through "Air Force One." The two hours of this movie felt like such an eternity that I was certain my clothes were going to be out of style by the time it was over.
"Air Force One" is a fantasy of what it might take for President Clinton to become all things to all people. The movie's Clinton stand-in, President James Marshall (Harrison Ford, appropriately displaying the facial mobility of Mount Rushmore), is a leader who defies his timid advisors in his efforts to set policies against injustice and tyranny and is willing to take on Congress to enforce those policies. But this is a fantasy designed to silence Clinton's conservative critics, so not only is Jim Marshall a dedicated family man, but he's a Vietnam War hero to boot. There's a combo you can't beat, a guy who knows how to kill a Commie and keep his pecker in his pocket.
In Ford's first scene he's making a speech at the Kremlin, where he's being honored for an American special forces mission that captured a Kazakhstan general, a dictator who threatened to use nuclear weapons to reunite Russia. Those of us who watched Clinton's repugnant vacillation while genocide was being carried out in the former Yugoslavia may get a laugh out of Ford saying that America waited too long to capture this war criminal and never again will he allow selfish caution to dictate American foreign policy. On the flight home, with Marshall's wife (Wendy Crewson) and daughter (Liesel Matthews, the talented young actress who starred in "A Little Princess") in tow, Air Force One is taken over by a group of Kazakh terrorists (led by Gary Oldman, back to his usual scenery chewing following his amusing psycho-Elmer-Fudd turn in "The Fifth Element"), demanding the release of the dictator general. At the first sign of trouble, Marshall is hustled below decks to the presidential escape pod. But he jettisons the thing and remains hidden in the plane, biding his time, to fight back.
On the basis of "Outbreak" and "In the Line of Fire," director Wolfgang Petersen has somehow managed to acquire a reputation as a maker of thinking person's thrillers. But how much thought can you ascribe to a director who (in "In the Line of Fire") cast John Malkovich as a master of disguise?! Petersen must be the most humorless director of entertainments who ever drew breath. The movie's glum, purposeful earnestness can be especially unpleasant when Oldman is executing innocent hostages. Petersen has no sensual or visceral feel for violence, or any notion of clearing a bit of screen space to honor a character's sudden absence.
"Air Force One" recalls nothing so much as the "corridors of power" thrillers of the '60s, the kind in which dull-as-dishwater character actors like Lloyd Nolan and Dean Jagger were dragged out to portray presidents and senators and so on. You can learn everything you need to know about "Air Force One" from Glenn Close's sensible, boring gray suit. She and the rest of the cast, which includes Dean Stockwell as the secretary of Defense, Paul Guilfoyle as the chief of staff and William H. Macy as an Army general, seem to be competing for the title of Bureaucrat with the Tiredest Blood. As the plot gets nuttier and nuttier, as renegade Soviet MIGs attack and the prez hangs from the plane flapping like a flag in a windstorm, the movie's stone-face approach is apt to send you into giggling fits. What's going on at the heart of the movie, however, is appalling.
In one of the most audacious addresses from any citizen to a sitting president, Norman Mailer, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, published an open letter to JFK in the Village Voice, in which he asked, "The moment an invasion is let loose, and you as the Commander in Chief go to your deep bomb shelter, why not send us your wife and children to share our fate in this city? ... we will know it is likely you are ready to suffer as we suffer, and that the weakness we feel before war ... is the impotence of men who would be brave."
That's exactly the impotence that "Air Force One" cannot admit. Ford's James Marshall -- waging guerrilla war from the bowels of his plane, refusing to show himself while his aides are executed, willing to chance genocide, all in order to save his wife and daughter -- is meant to be a symbol of American strength, proof that they can't do this to America. In "Air Force One," America is the family. So what if millions of Eastern Europeans will die to preserve it? In terms of the tough decisions a president should be prepared to make, "Air Force One" has inadvertently offered up a Clinton stand-in as gutless as Clinton's detractors claim him to be. There is one character here prepared to make those decisions, Stockwell's secretary of Defense, who suggests that maybe the lives of the people on the plane are small potatoes compared to what the freed dictator will set in motion, and we're cued to see him as a power-hungry militarist.
This may seem to be taking a movie that's just a somber version of the usual summer blockbuster far too seriously. But one of the reasons "Air Force One" is going to be a hit is that it taps right into America's most deeply held fantasies about its leaders. Liberals get to see a reinvigorated president stand against tyranny, prove the militarists wrong and save his family. Conservatives can revel in the most masturbatory boys' book fantasies about a man putting his hand in the fire to see what he's made of. "Air Force One" is as indicative of the poverty of current American political discourse as anything out there. It's common ground for dingbats.