AMERICA HAS become a media-fueled celebrity culture in which the fact of fame is more important than whatever a person may have done to deserve all the attention. The result is, among other things, a blurring of the distinctions between mass entertainment and political achievement. To many people, the president is now, first and foremost, the nation's top celebrity, and he is judged by standards applied to Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey as much as by those used on Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole.
Bill Clinton has mastered this terrain more cleverly than his predecessors, including mediagenic personalities like Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy. He was the first presidential candidate to woo MTV, and he further proved his cool by playing the sax while sporting hipster shades. The only constant behind his bobbing and weaving between liberal and conservative policies seems to be his ability to feel our pain like a TV talk-show host.
This summer's latest blockbuster hit, Air Force One, takes the confusion between celebrityhood and political leadership one step further by turning the president into an action hero in the Bruce Willis of Die Hard vein. The movie begins with a U.S. Army commando unit kidnapping the ultra-nationalist Gen. Alexander Radek (Jurgen Prochnow) from his well-guarded living quarters in Kazakhistan. He was the mastermind of a bloody revolt against the current, more moderate Russian regime. His aim was to restore the Motherland to its pre-Gorbachev imperial glory.
Three weeks later the American president, John Marshall (Harrison Ford), journeys to Moscow to celebrate the renegade's capture. In a speech to the Russian leadership and other top international officials, he deviates from the mild-mannered prepared text and promises never again to stop U.S. forces from standing up to terrorists like Radek, even if our national interest isn't directly threatened. When his chief-of-staff (Paul Guilfoyle) later complains about possible negative fallout from our allies and Congress, Marshall snaps: “It's the right thing to do, and you know it.”
Marshall's moral rectitude in foreign policy is soon to be matched by his display of physical courage and quick thinking under fire. The president boards Air Force One, “the world's most secure aircraft,” and tries to relax with his picture-perfect wife Grace (Wendy Crewson), and his brainy but lovable 12-year-old daughter, Alice (Liesel Matthews). But his duty-bound staff drags him away to focus on the latest round of crises.
At the same time, Radek loyalist, Ivan Korshunow (Gary Oldham), and five comrades, infiltrate the heavily protected plane, masquerading as a TV news crew. With help from a traitorous secret service agent (Yander Berkeley), they take over Air Force One, holding the passengers hostage. Korshunov brags that he would “turn his back on God himself for Mother Russia.” He wants Radek freed in exchange for the prisoners so that “the infection you call freedom” can be eradicated from his homeland. The terrorist believes that democratic capitalism has allowed Russia to be ruled by “gangsters and prostitutes,” and when the Americans argue that his actions are immoral, he replies: “You murdered 100,000 Iraqis to save a nickel on a gallon of gasoline.”
Everyone assumes that the president has escaped on a special pod ejected from the aircraft. Back in Washington, D.C., Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) tries to take charge, but an Alexander Haig-like secretary of defense (Dean Stockwell) challenges her authority. This provokes a constitutional crisis that can only be resolved after a consultation with the attorney general and a vote of the cabinet.
As the president's associates dither, he is forced to take matters into his own hands. The former Vietnam War helicopter pilot and Medal of Honor-winner refuses to abandon his family. He remains aboard Air Force One, engaging Korshunov in a violent cat-and-mouse game for control.
Director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot) and screenwriter Andrew Marlowe depict the president as a crack shot, excellent at hand-to-hand combat, willing and able to kill when necessary. He's also resourceful and calm under pressure, finding ways to make contact with Washington while balancing political interests against human lives at risk. At times his daring-do almost rivals James Bond's as when he hangs off the edge of an open cargo door and kicks a bad guy into oblivion, asserting boldly: “Get off my plane.”
Of course, President Marshall is too good to be true. He combines the toughness of Reagan's foreign policy before Iran-Contra with a variation of George Bush's war record, leavened by Clinton's personal touch and youthful family. But the treatment of the president as a larger-than-life genre hero isn't necessarily a sign of respect.
In the past five years, Hollywood has abandoned the seriousness and political purpose found in earlier films about chief executives like Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Fail Safe, Seven Days in May, and Sunrise at Campobello. Instead our presidents are placed in highly exaggerated situations where entertainment value is more important than message.
The 1993 hit comedy, Dave, depicted a womanizing chief executive felled by a stroke and replaced by a look-alike. In the more recent success, The American President, a bachelor commander-in-chief courts an attractive environmental lobbyist. And last year's summer blockbuster, Independence Day, featured the president leading a fighter squadron against hostile extraterrestrials. Air Force One is merely a continuation of this trend.
In between the laughter and thrills of these escapist products the traditional dignity of the office gets lost. All of them skillfully exploit the delegitimization of one of our culture's most important institutions, substituting fantasy and wish fulfillment for reverence and intelligent examination of our highest ideals.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.