Harrison Ford Is the Total Package in This ’90s Blockbuster

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Air Force One is the quintessential Harrison Ford movie, representing the apex of his charismatic action star persona.
  • The film was a last hurrah for mid-budget action blockbusters before audiences’ tastes shifted into franchise fare.
  • Air Force One proved that there will never be anyone quite like Harrison Ford, a true movie star with lasting appeal.


Harrison Ford is his own franchise. During a career retrospective with People in 2023, the actor, 80 years old at the time, shared, “I never thought that I would be a leading man. […] No one ever believes this, but I never wanted to be rich and famous. I just wanted to be an actor.” Ford gave a similar statement in 1981, also to People, where the newfangled movie star rejected that verbiage: “I don’t want to be a movie star. I want to be in movies that are stars.” He may have risen to the kind of enviable worldwide prominence few achieve thanks to leading roles in two landmark pieces of cinema — both of which, ironically, offered a variation on the lovable rogue archetype. But through a series of astute career moves, Ford accomplished his goal even as fate circumvented his fame-avoiding tendencies. His effortlessly wicked and imminently recognizable charisma established an unspoken promise that no matter how often his characters skirted past the edges of moral misbehavior, they always did the right thing before the credits rolled. That prickly cactus demeanor hid a proverbial heart of gold (one handily proficient with the art of fisticuffs). He became the movie star equivalent of “don’t threaten me with a good time,” and embodied the perfect action star of his time.

As his career evolved in the 1980s and 1990s, the crystallization of Ford’s image won’t be found in Indiana Jones or Star Wars, but with a one-off action movie. Air Force One, the Wolfgang Petersen blockbuster from 1997 where Russian terrorists hijack the U.S. President’s plane and hold the White House staff hostage, is quintessential Harrison Ford in a way that requires his fictional history precede him. Cited by Ford as the movie he most often quotes in real life (“Because I fly, I probably say more than I need to, ‘Get off my plane!”), no movie better summarizes Ford’s crackingly magnetic persona. And it wasn’t even written for him.

Air Force One

Communist radicals hijack Air Force One with the U.S. President and his family on board. The Vice President negotiates from Washington D.C., while the President, a veteran, fights to rescue the hostages on board.

Release Date
July 25, 1997

Runtime
124 minutes

Writers
Andrew W. Marlowe


‘Air Force One’ Is a Competent Thriller Anchored by Harrison Ford’s Charisma

Harrison Ford as President James Marshall standing at a speech podium with a neutral expression in Air Force One
Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

Air Force One sees Harrison Ford assume the role of United States President James Marshall. Or, if you ask President Bill Clinton via Ford’s paraphrasing, “the kick-ass president.” Clocking in at just over two hours, the movie quickly establishes that Marshall is Not Like Other Presidents. He has no time for the machinations of American politics. During a diplomatic dinner, Marshall eviscerates the political system that led to rich white men congratulating one another while refugees suffer. America’s foreign relations policies are a failure he vows to radically overhaul. Most of all, the United States will never negotiate with terrorists. It’s a banger of a speech. He ends by declaring with steely Ford resolve, “We will no longer tolerate, and we will no longer be afraid. It’s your turn to be afraid.” Mic drop!

After masterfully trolling Washington, D.C., Marshall hops onto Air Force One. All he wants to do is see his family, watch the football game he missed, and take a nap. Instead, a group of neo-Soviet terrorists commandeers the plane. Led by Egor Korshunov (Gary Oldman at the height of his zany villain streak), the group wants Marshall to free an imprisoned Russian general. Marshall strategically evades them for most of the movie, but once he’s caught, his vows are put to the test: release the general, or Marshall’s wife and daughter die.

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This is when Air Force One becomes “Die Hard on a plane.” It’s a tight rollercoaster of a political thriller and a rollicking good time. This is a film that knows what it is and hits its action shoot-’em-up requirements many leagues above competent. The editing is sharp and clear, always keeping the viewer spatially aware, and the tension crisply suffocating. It never fails to entertain, even when it strains the limits of its concept’s plausibility. The late Wolfgang Petersen deserves high marks for directing with appropriate aplomb, but you can’t turn a corner without running into a ’90s character actor. William H. Macy, Xander Berkeley, Wendy Crewson, Paul Guilfoyle, and Dean Stockwell fill out a roster of heavyweights led by Ford, Oldman, and none other than Glenn Close as the Vice President. (For 1997, it’s a startlingly progressive movie in some respects.)

Ford Embodies the Perfect Hero in ‘Air Force One’

James Marshall and Air Force One‘s narrative framing is the apex of Ford’s beloved image. For one, Marshall’s a fantasy: he’s the ideal U.S. President to a T, the kind society will never see. He’s properly patriotic (the movie’s most dated aspect). He’s unshakably moral. He has no patience for BS or haters. He’s a family man and a girl dad who prioritizes others’ lives with inherent selflessness. Once the terrorist takeover begins and the Secret Service agents rush Marshall to his one-person escape pod, Marshall shouts for his family. He sneaks his way out of the pod before it ejects because he refuses to abandon a plane full of innocent lives. Not once does Marshall abuse his power. He even won a Medal of Honor for flying rescue missions!

Most importantly for gung-ho viewers of a certain disposition, Marshall unrepentantly kicks ass. This is the kind of guy who triggers literal in-movie applause after he announces his name, and Ford dons his sweaty, bleeding, put-upon hero look as easily as a pair of socks. He bites out crabby one-liners, dispenses platonic cheek kisses, and fires off bullets. And, of course, there’s the legendary declaration that became a pop culture meme when the internet was still nascent: Marshall seizes Korshunov by his shirt collar, seethes with defiant loathing, and spit-growls, “get off my plane” before tossing him out the open hatch. Essentially, he’s The West Wing‘s Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) with a machine gun. And who but Harrison Ford at the height of his renown could sincerely, gleefully manage that? It’s witchcraft.

‘Air Force One’ Marked the End of an Era

A close up of Harrison Ford as President James Marshall staring imploringly at an offscreen Gary Oldman in Air Force One
Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

Air Force One producers initially offered the role of Marshall to Kevin Costner. Costner was too busy and insisted no actor accept the role except Ford. It might be nostalgia talking, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else helming this popcorn blockbuster. Ford was in his 50s, and Air Force One distills his career into a frozen-in-amber moment: his appeal, his easy yet resonant presence, and his back-to-back achievements. Make no mistake, he’s no one trick pony. Ford slid naturally into a rom-com persona for Working Girl, sought quieter, more complex roles like Witness, and played against type in The Fugitive and What Lies Beneath. The latter film dares to predicate its twist upon the assumption of Ford always being a good guy. Those roles aside, Ford always evokes a sense of safety. No matter the hardships portrayed onscreen, good will triumph, and viewers will have a damn good time at the movies.

So how did Air Force One pull that off? It’s a prime example of “right place, right time.” Ford was a beloved figure who never rested on his cinematic laurels, but the quality of his films dipped in the 2000s. Firewall is a forgettable waste of everyone involved, Cowboys & Aliens was a divisive flop, and we don’t talk about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Audience tastes were slowly shifting away from traditional action blockbusters, especially with superhero material growing in popularity. Star Wars: The Force Awakens ushered in a new era of reboots in which Ford participated. His name will always be a draw, and between Yellowstone: 1923, Shrinking, and joining the MCU in Captain America: New World Order, Ford has no plans to retire. But Air Force One unintentionally marked the upcoming end of an era. Ford would remain, but within 15 years, the time of the original mid-budget film would, unfortunately, be over.

‘Air Force One’ Proves Will Never Be Anyone Like Harrison Ford

Air Force One was one of 1997’s box office giants. It earned $315 million worldwide, an impressive feat in the same year Titanic dominated everything. There are many reasons it’s a movie that wouldn’t be made today. Its particular brand of rah-rah patriotism and assured belief in American invincibility leaves a foul taste. Western cinema shrugging off some of that Jingoistic arrogance is a vast improvement, but instead of continuing to depict healthy, selfless masculinity ala Air Force One, we have Gerard Butler‘s grim B-movie extremism.

Harrison Ford’s President Marshall is just a dude with relatable personality quirks. He doesn’t seek violence but enacts it to protect his loved ones, and his crooked smile is like cracking open a pot of gold. In turn, Harrison Ford as an actor is an irreplaceable gift. Han Solo and Indiana Jones kickstarted his contributions to film, but consistently strong efforts like Air Force One cemented his legacy as one of the last living people who can truly be called a movie star. No IPs need apply.

Air Force One is available to rent on Prime Video in the U.S.

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