Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel


Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Written by Andrew W. Marlowe. Cinematography, Michael Ballhaus. Production design, William Sandell. Editing, Richard Francis-Bruce. Music, Jerry Goldsmith, Joel McNeely (additional). Cast: Harrison Ford ( President James Marshall), Gary Oldman (Ivan Korshunov), Glenn Close (Vice President Kathryn Bennett), Wendy Crewson (Grace Marshall), Liesel Matthews (Alice Marshall), Paul Guilfoyle (Chief of Staff), Xander Berkeley (Agent Gibbs), William H. Macy (Major Caldwell), Dean Stockwell (Defense Secretary) , Tom Everett (NSA Advisor), Jürgen Prochnow (General Alexander Radek), et al. A Beacon & Sony/Columbia release.125 min. Rated R. (Violence, language).
When the Soviet Union dissolved, Hollywood political action-thrillers lost their favorite enemy. But it was only a matter of time until a substitute could be found, "AFO" opens with a daring raid by US and Russian commandos on the Presidential Palace of Khazakstan , a breakaway, independent republic since 1991. Many guards are killed. General Radek (Jurgen Prochnow) the vicious, tyrannical, terrorist-sponsoring President, and a menace to Russia, is abducted and taken to a Muscovite prison.

At a Moscow conference US President Marshall (Harrison Ford) makes a watershed declaration: America will no longer intervene abroad only if US interests are involved, but also when Evil menaces Good anywhere. It's a stirring speech that in real life would raise many a political eyebrow. It gets thunderous applause.

The President, his wife, their 12-year old daughter, a large entourage plus members of the press board the USA-bound Air Force One plane. The sequence is impressively staged and photographed. But you guess right away that some "reporters" are really terrorists and that one American Secret Service man is a traitor.

Exhausted President Marshall is a regular guy, a happy family man who just wants a beer while watching a football game on tape. The First Lady looks nice but is not glamorized. She has some patriotic, duty-first dialogues with her man, somewhat in Jimmy Stewart style. Daughter Alice (from "The Little Princess") is charming.

The terrorists take over the plane, using its huge resident arsenal. The action is extremely violent. Dead Americans litter the aircraft. Gary Oldman (as Ivan Korshunov) is the forceful, devilishly clever, intuitive, well-prepared leader of the phony newsmen. Excellently cast Oldman speaks perfect English with a Russian accent. I would trust him to sell me vodka, but otherwise Korshunov is a frightening monster, a paranoid, True Believer in Communism. He demands the immediate release of Kazakh President Radek, otherwise every half-hour he will execute a hostage. He does just that.

At the White House, the Government's civilian and military bigwigs gather, presided over by Vice President Glenn Close. (Bully for this; high time we had a woman in this post or as First Citizen). Close's performance is emotional yet efficient. As a bonus, it also involves her in a tug-of-war with ambitious Defense Secretary Dean Stockwell. From Europe, fighter planes get in the act.

This is as far as I will go into the plot without spoiling the suspense of this recommended movie. And there is plenty of suspense fast, gripping, suspending your disbelief or numbing your senses to the point that you ignore much of the action's ludicrousness. Of course you know all along that after costly battles, the end will find the First Family alive and well. The suspense, while not nail-chewing about the final outcome ( the Z on an A to Z scale), works well during the tense events that run from B to Y. You might get a bit impatient, but not bored.

Harrison Ford's role makes no major demands on his acting, Gary Oldman's performance is far more notable. But the choice of Ford as the lead in a "guy movie" was cleverly calculated to attract many female fans of the now 55-year-old actor.

That Harrison could lose, especially playing a President, is unconstitutional. That this is a Ford actioneer means he is at heroic center-stage in "AFO." That he was a Vietnam hero and Medal of Honor air ace, skilled and self-sacrificing, are attributes essential to the plot.

There's no scarcity of other clichés. When push comes to shove, President Marshall transforms himself from world statesman into Indiana Jones, a paragon of pugilism, daring, inventiveness and skills. We get mano a mano-type duels down to the final triumphant face-off. Or tricks of the suspense trade that involve a cellular phone, a fax, a gun that the President gives the traitor in the only ironical scene that made the audience titter.

The real and new star of the movie is the AFO plane. For the hordes who fly in steerage AFO is a wonder. The picture does a great job of special effects and recreating the plane without any plans or much information.

President Clinton has seen the movie twice, both times during flights in Air Force One. About the plane's authenticity he declared that "As far as I know there is no escape pod and I don't think we have quite the arsenal on there, and there is no back door." He might have added the real plane's conference room is much smaller. Mr. Clinton "liked a lot" this "very good movie."

The photography, production values, and almost all special effects, are tops. German-born director Wolfgang Petersen skillfully combines in one work his interest in people in confined spaces (the submarine film "Das Boot"), a tricky genre, and in Presidential assassinations ("In the Line of Fire").

I cannot think of the film as literally "entertaining." There is something disturbing about so many killings and about the psychological trauma of a 12-year old who has witnessed so executions. The story has major gaps. What was the mechanism of the terrorists' (and the traitor's) preparation?; how exactly could they fool elaborate security? why did the Secret Service man (whose has small, vague part) betray? what are the specifics of General Radek's crimes?

One may wonder what Khazakhstan will think of this movie. And whether a terrorist takeover of AFO could occur in reality. The chances may be minute yet for most of us far more credible in "AFO" than UFO.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel