Monday, February 18, 2013

For Presidents' Day: The prescient politics of Air Force One...

In a two-for-one deal, today we discuss both an above-average Die Hard riff and a film explicitly about presidential politics.  As an action picture, Air Force One remains a rather terrific adventure, even if it follows the beat-for-beat structure of Die Hard a bit more than the likes of Under Siege or Speed. It's superbly acted by Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman, while containing several strong action beats and a thoughtful adult presentation of its subject matter. But putting aside its worth as a genre exercise, it was and remains a fascinating piece of subtly political cinema.  First and foremost, it stands as a prime example of the pre-9/11 idea that a big studio popcorn film could have explicit politics, even morally complicated politics, without being considered overtly political.  Second of all, it stands as a potent and prescient meditation on the personality-driven nature of today's governmental bodies, the 'cult of personality' if you will.  The whole film becomes a meditation on the political legacies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, especially when it comes to our reactions to their respective foreign policy.

The film kicks off with an American Seal unit sneaking into Kazakhstan and abducting its leader in a hail of gunfire.  While the picture doesn't explicitly comment on the gray morality of such a thing, it neither presents it as a glamorous affair.  The violence is quick, brutal, and bloody, something that will last over the course of the very-much R-rated picture.  The opening capture sequence is scored to the same music that will be used during the plane hijacking around 20 minutes later.  Since we aren't told what's happening during this opening scene, the film offers discomfort as armed guards are executed and a man is dragged out of his bed at gunpoint for reasons not yet made clear.  The later hijacking sequence is indeed jolting both in its intensity and its casually brutal violence.  But while we may be more disturbed by the second major action sequence because of our own personal prejudices (Americans being gunned down on Air Force One!) the film doesn't make an attempt to cast one act of armed intrusion and extraction as any better or worse than the other.

What follows that first raid is of course Harrison Ford's "Bill Clinton is very sorry we didn't go into Rwanda sooner" speech.  Parables aside, the speech is fascinating when viewed in historical hindsight.  It's not all that different from George W. Bush's second inaugural address, which was greeted by derision by liberals eight years ago.  One of many sad ironies of the proverbial war on terror is that we had a Republican president claiming to want to use American military might to spread freedom and justice around the globe purely because it was morally wrong to let evil reign yet we had lefties saying "No!". President James Marshall's "peace is not just the absence of conflict but the presence of justice" speech would almost be considered Neo-Conservative today. If it were given by Barack Obama, lefties would cheer while righties would hiss.  But give that speech to George W. Bush and the opposite would likely occur. The person saying the words and/or conducting the policy sadly affects our reaction to said policy.

The film goes out of its way to flesh out its lead villain, offering Gary Oldman's lead hijacker a wealth of thoughtful opinion.  In the pre-9/11 era this was simply good screenwriting, merely a case of making your villain more than a cardboard bad guy. His periodic reference to the American policy of ordering fiery death from hundreds of miles away via smart bombs was not only prophetic in relation to how the 9/11 hijackers were discussed but also the current debate over Obama's use of unmanned drones. The charge that America "murdered 100,000 Iraqis so that we could save a nickel on a gallon of gasoline" goes unchallenged because it cannot be logically defended.  But because we like the Commander In Chief it also mostly falls on deaf ears. Harrison Ford's President Marshall overthrows the leader of a sovereign nation because he was killing his own people and because he was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and we cheer.  George W. Bush gets the order backwards and we howl in protest.

Air Force One asks unnerving questions and is at least somewhat honest about the situation it depicts. The question it most explicitly asks and certainly dares not to answer, one that stuck out even on the first viewing back in 1997, is whether or not the presidency is merely about the man or the institution.  Defense Secretary Dean Stockwell clashes with Vice President Glenn Close, as the former wants to invoke the 25th Amendment while Close wants to trust Marshall's judgment.  Considering that Marshall folds ten seconds after his own family is directly threatened, it's tough to argue that Stockwell was wrong.  As we watch countless people die violently, Secret Service agents, pilots, random passengers, pretty much anyone who has the bad luck to pilot an airplane of any kind, a frankly shocking number of "good guys" die bloodily in this picture, all to save one man.  The question that the film cannot explicitly ask is "Why should all of these people die so that this one man can live?"

James Marshall was arguably intended to represent a fantasy hybrid of Bill Clinton (charming, humanistic baby boomer with a politically engaged first lady and a generic liberal philosophy) and George H.W. Bush (a sterling war record and the skills to engage directly against hostilities).  He is the prototypical 'nice guy' president, moved by the suffering of others, appalled by violence in all of its forms, endearing to his family, but really just wanting to relax with a beer and a football game. Today he comes off like a variation of Barack Obama, specifically the incredibly mixed feelings that his policies endanger on the would-be political left.   Viewed sixteen years later, the picture is a rather potent look at the arguable hypocrisy of our current political system, one that values 'cult of personality' over whether we like the guy's policies.

Would we lefties have been opposed to the various post-9/11 foreign policy choices that Bush made if, respective competency aside, they were instead made by President Al Gore? Would those on the GOP isle have called for President Al Gore's impeachment for merely allowing 9/11 to happen on his watch.  If you're a hyper-partisan GOP-er, you probably think the recent siege on the Benghazi embassy was a bigger intelligence screw-up than the 9/11 attacks.  Whether intentional or not, writer Andrew W. Marlowe and director Wolfgang Peterson's Air Force One represents a powerful condemnation of the idea of preferential patriotism. If we believe that the slaughter of Iraqis for the benefit of oil-related interests was immoral when George W. Bush did it, we too should be appalled when Bill Clinton ordered sanctions that caused countless Iraqis to basically starve to death.  If we condemned the Dick Cheney-ordained post-9/11 policies of torture and rendition, then we too should condemn Barack Obama for ordering what amounts to a super-secret kill list.

Air Force One arguably isn't *about* any of this stuff, it just mixes it into the action-adventure spectacle in order to give the film a bit more weight and depth.  Again, it contains politics without being considered political, something that I'd argue doesn't happen all that much in the post-9/11 era. More importantly it is a fascinating document about how our modern political system has truly become a cult of personality, where we gladly support the wrong policies as long as they are from the right politician.  Casting Harrison Ford is an uncanny trick, as Mr. Ford, like Morgan Freeman (and original choice Kevin Costner) is someone who automatically commands the moral benefit of the doubt whether his character deserves it or not. We give James Marshall the benefit of the doubt for what amounts to a potentially reckless foreign policy because it 'feels good' and because we damn-well trust Harrison Ford.  Air Force One may not be about the moral gray zone of American foreign policy or the potentially disastrous cult of partisan personality in American politics, but it stands as a shining example.  Oh yeah, and it's also still a terrific action picture, but you already knew that.

Scott Mendelson


Joshua Merritt said...

I have not seen the film since it came out so I can't speak to your interpretation of the work as I don't recall it that well, but on the subject of the state of politics and the cult of personality I take issue. Politically I'm very left of center and therefore tend to disagree with Obama's conservatism constantly. Furthermore I disagreed with Clinton's conservatism as well. I don't know how conservatives feel about the respective Bush administrations (if there's any guilt or sense of shared culpability), but with regards to the Obama administration I view his failings as his, not mine, nor the left as an abstraction. While I can't speak for everyone left or right I'm sure most thinking people have their own complex political philosophies and moral sentiments beyond national political parties and their perfunctory mix of jingoism and half baked policy.

Scott Mendelson said...

Sadly you and I may be the exception rather than the rule -

aboynamedart said...

George W. Bush gets the order backwards and we howl in protest.

For many people, however, it was as much the person giving the order as it was the order being based on trumped-up evidence and the alibi that it would lead to the capture of Osama bin Laden.

Joshua Merritt said...

Reading that Salon article brought to mind a quote from Albert Einstein "the majority of the stupid is inevitable and secure for all time."

Scott Mendelson said...

Agreed. But, and I say this as one of those who didn't believe the tales of WMD back in 2002, would people of my political stripe had been more likely to believe such tales coming from President Gore or Obama? I don't know, but it stands to reason that it would have moved the needle just a bit.


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