Air Force One is a 1997 American political action thriller film directed and co-produced by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close, Wendy Crewson, Xander Berkeley, William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell, and Paul Guilfoyle.
It was written by Andrew W. Marlowe. It is about a group of terrorists who hijack Air Force One and the president’s attempt to rescue everyone on board by retaking his plane.
A combined Russian-American special forces operation captures General Ivan Radek, the ruthless dictator of Kazakhstan. Three weeks later, US President James Marshall attends a diplomatic dinner in Moscow, during which he praises the capture and declares that the US will never negotiate with terrorists. Marshall and his inner circle, including his wife Grace and 12-year-old daughter Alice, his Chief of Staff Lloyd Shepherd, National Security Advisor Jack Doherty, Major Norman Caldwell, and several of his Cabinet and advisers, prepare to return to the US aboard Air Force One. In addition, members of the press have been invited aboard by Deputy Press Secretary Melanie Mitchell including six supposed members of a Russian TV news crew, who are in truth ultra-nationalist Radek loyalists led by terrorist Egor Korshunov.
After takeoff, with the help of Agent Gibbs, a mole in the Secret Service, Korshunov and his accomplices manage to obtain weapons and storm the plane, killing the rest of the agents and several military personnel before taking the civilians hostage including Marshall’s family. Marshall is rushed to an escape pod in the cargo hold and seemingly escapes as the pod is ejected. Korshunov and his pilot Kolchak breach the cockpit and prevent the aircraft from making an emergency landing at Ramstein Air Base.
Several F-15s escort Air Force One as it is diverted towards Kazakhstan. Korshunov contacts Vice President Kathryn Bennett at the White House and demands Radek’s release from prison in exchange for the hostages on board, warning that he will execute one hostage every 30 minutes until they concede. After the first deadline, Korshunov executes Jack Doherty and secures Grace and Alice separately from the other hostages.
Unknown to the hijackers, Marshall, a veteran of the Vietnam War and Medal of Honour recipient, remained hidden in the cargo hold instead of using the pod. Using his military training, he observes the Radek loyalists while secretly evading them. After killing two of Korshunov’s men, he uses a satellite phone found in the luggage racks to make contact with Bennett. Korshunov, believing that a Secret Service agent is stowed away in the cargo hold, threatens to execute Melanie Mitchell over the plane’s intercom to force Marshall to surrender. Marshall remains hidden and Korshunov executes Melanie.
Marshall dumps some of the plane’s fuel reserve in an attempt to force a landing. Korshunov subsequently forces Bennett to agree to a mid-air refuelling, while Marshall captures another terrorist Nevsky, and forces him to the conference room where the hostages are being held. Marshall and Caldwell devise a plan to trick Korshunov to take Air Force One to a lower altitude for the refuelling, which will allow time and altitude for the hostages to parachute safely off the plane. As a KC-10 tanker docks with Air Force One, Marshall and the advisors escort the hostages to the parachute ramp where most of the hostages parachute away. However, Korshunov discovers the deception and sends another of his men, Lenski, to intercept the escaping hostages. Lenski causes a severe decompression in the hold, and Korshunov is forced to pull Air Force One away, causing the fuel to ignite and destroy the tanker. During the chaos, a number of hostages including Nevsky fall out of the plane to their deaths and Lenski manages to capture Marshall, Shepherd, Caldwell, and Gibbs and notifies Korshunov who orders the F-15s to abandon Air Force One.
Coming face to face with him, Korshunov scolds Marshall about how the collapse of the Soviet Union ruined his country. He then forces him to contact Russian President Stolicha Petrov and arrange for Radek’s release from prison. Marshall refuses but finally relents when Korshunov holds a gun to Alice’s head. Bennett is urged by Defence Secretary Walter Dean to declare the President incapable under the 25th amendment, so as to override Radek’s release, but she refuses. Marshall breaks free of his restraints, and kills Kolchak and Lenski. Korshunov tries to kill Marshall, but Shepherd purposefully takes the bullet, leaving him wounded. Korshunov drags Grace down to the plane’s parachute ramp. Marshall chases Korshunov and Grace briefly distracts him, before Marshall strangles Korshunov with a parachute strap, knocks him off of the plane, breaking his neck his corpse parachuting away. Marshall races back to lift his order, and Radek is subsequently shot dead attempting to flee custody.
Marshall, with Major Caldwell’s help, directs the plane back towards friendly airspace in Incirlik, Turkey. However, the plane is attacked by a fleet of MiG-29s dispatched by a Radek-loyal Aktubinsk base. The F-15s are ordered to fly into Kazakh airspace and counterattack the MiGs, but gunfire from one MiG ruptures Air Force One’s fuel tanks, causing the plane to lose fuel. When one F-15 pilot sacrifices himself to intercept a missile, shrapnel from the resulting explosion damages Air Force One’s tail controls, rendering landing impossible.
A US Air Force Rescue MC-130 that was heading to take over Radek’s airfields is called to help, sending para-jumpers on tether lines to help rescue the survivors. Marshall insists that his family and the injured Shepherd be transferred first. When there is time for only one more transfer, Gibbs reveals his true allegiance and pulls a gun killing the para-jumper and Caldwell. Marshall and Gibbs fight for control of the transfer line; Marshall gains the upper hand, grabbing the line and attaching himself to it at the last second. Air Force One crashes into the Caspian Sea, killing Gibbs. The MC-130 airmen reel Marshall in safely, where he walks into his family’s waiting arms. Everyone in the White House Situation Room celebrate as confirmation of Marshall’s rescue is given, and Bennett tears up the presidential incapacity order. The MC-130 is subsequently dubbed with the call sign of Air Force One as it flies safely away along with its F-15 escorts.
- Harrison Ford as President James Marshall, a popular president and a family man, who loves his wife, Grace, and daughter, Alice. Marshall is also a decorated helicopter-rescue pilot, Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honour recipient who speaks reasonably fluent Russian. Feigning escape during Air Force One’s hijacking, he attempts to retake the aircraft, to rescue everybody.
- Gary Oldman as Egor Korshunov, a ruthless Radek loyalist, who leads the hijacking of Air Force One. Korshunov believes that the collapse of the Soviet Union has ruined his country. The character is erroneously named Ivan Korshunov by the end credits.
- Glenn Close as Vice President Kathryn Bennett: The Vice President of the United States, who commands the situation in the White House Situation Room. Through all the tension, Bennett remains calm, refusing to make risky or poor decisions.
- Wendy Crewson as the First Lady Grace Marshallu
- Liesel Matthews as the First Daughter Alice Marshallu
- Paul Guilfoyle as White House Chief of Staff Lloyd Shepherdu
- William H. Macy as Major Norman Caldwell, USAF, military aide to the Presidentu
- Dean Stockwell as Defense Secretary Walter Deanu
- Xander Berkeley as Secret Service Special Agent Gibbs, the head of the Presidential Protective Division and the mole of the hijacking of Air Force One. The hijackers never reveal to anyone that Gibbs is their mole, and apparently hold him hostage along with everyone else.
- Elya Baskin as Andrei Kolchak, Korshunov’s best friend, pilot, and right-hand manu
- Levan Uchaneishvili as Sergei Lenski, Korshunov’s henchman & communications expertu
- David Vadim as Igor Nevsky, Korshunov’s henchmanu
- Andrew Divoff as Boris Bazylev, Korshunov’s henchmanu
- Ilia Volok as Vladimir Krasin, Korshunov’s henchman and close friend, whom he served with in the Soviet-Afghan War.
- Alan Woolf as Russian President Stolicha Petrovu
- Tom Everett as National Security Advisor Jack Doherty. Korshunov executes Doherty, the first hostage to die when the terrorists demand Radek’s release.
- Jürgen Prochnow as General Ivan Radek, the dictator of a rogue terrorist regime in Kazakhstan, which has taken possession of former stolen Soviet nuclear weapons, threatening to start a new Cold War. Radek’s regime is responsible for the killing of 200,000 people. Captured by a joint Russian–American military ops team, Radek is imprisoned in Russia, awaiting trial for his crimes against humanity. The terrorists who take over Air Force One demand his release, threatening to kill a hostage every half hour. The character is erroneously named Alexander Radek by the end credits.
- Donna Bullock as Deputy Press Secretary Melanie Mitchell: Korshunov, believing that a Secret Service Agent is in the cargo hold, kills her.
- Michael Ray Miller as Colonel Axelrod, USAF, pilot of Air Force One.
- Carl Weintraub as Lieutenant Colonel Ingraham, USAF, co-pilot of Air Force One.
- Spencer Garrett as White House Aide Thomas Lee.
- Bill Smitrovich as General William Northwood, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
- Glenn Morshower as US Secret Service Agent Walters.
- David Gianopoulos as US Secret Service Agent Johnson.
- Dan Shor as Notre Dame Aide.
- Philip Baker Hall as Attorney General Andrew Ward.
- Richard Doyle as Colonel Bob Jackson, USAF, Air Force One Backup Pilot.
- Willard Pugh as White House Communications Officer.
- Diana Bellamy as White House Switchboard Operator Pananides.
- Don McManus as Lieutenant Colonel Jack Carlton, F-15 “Halo Flight” Leader.
- J.A. Preston as Major General Samuel Greely: Having been President Marshall’s commanding officer during the Vietnam War, he is the first to anticipate that Marshall is battling the hijackers.
- Michael Monks as Assistant White House Press Secretary.
A large part of the crew took a tour of the real Air Force One before filming. They based some of the film’s scenes on the touring experience when the terrorists disguised as journalists survey the plane’s layout and begin to take their seats. The character of Deputy Press Secretary Melanie Mitchell was based largely on their real-life tour guide, and the crew felt uncomfortable having to film the character’s execution by the terrorists. For the exterior scenes, the producers rented a Boeing 747-146 aircraft, N703CK from Kalitta Air and repainted it to replicate the Air Force One livery.
Air Force One is shown as being equipped with a one-person escape pod for emergency use by the President of the United States. It was also done this way in at least three other films, Escape from New York, Bermuda Tentacles and Big Game. The actual Air Force One does not have an escape pod.
Paul Attanasio was brought in as a script doctor to work on the film prior to shooting. Scenes explaining Agent Gibbs’ motivation for being the mole were cut from the final script. According to director Wolfgang Petersen, Gibbs was a former CIA agent who lost a lot after the end of the Cold War and thus became angry with the American government and wanted revenge. He knew the terrorists from his CIA days and so they included him in their operation. The scene was considered too long to tell and so it was cut from the film. The director also felt that it was unnecessary to have in the film so it was removed as it was irrelevant to the plot. Petersen also said that in the original draft, Gibbs revealed himself as the mole early and joined the terrorists in hijacking the plane. The director felt it was more suspenseful to keep the audience guessing in the final cut and specifically pointed to the scene in which Marshall gives Gibbs a gun before escorting the hostages from the conference room to the parachutes in the cargo hold.
Gary Oldman did not stay in character between the scenes. The director later said he called the filming experience “Air Force Fun” because of how comic and genial Oldman would be off-screen. He also said that Oldman would suddenly return to the menacing film persona like a shot. Oldman used his acting fee for the film to help finance his directorial debut, Nil by Mouth.
General Radek’s palace, seen in the film’s opening, was portrayed by two locations in Cleveland, Ohio: the exterior was Severance Hall, and the interior was the Cuyahoga County Courthouse. The Russian prison where Radek was incarcerated was the Ohio State Reformatory, previously seen in The Shawshank Redemption and also used for Godsmack’s music video for Awake in 2000. Ramstein Air Base, Germany was portrayed by Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base, Ohio. The diplomatic dinner scene was shot at the Ebell of Los Angeles while a second unit captured scenes in Red Square in Moscow. Scenes featuring Sheremetyevo International Airport, the departure airport of Air Force One in the film, were shot at Los Angeles International Airport.
F-15 Eagle aircraft from the 33rd Operations Group, 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida were used in the film.
Randy Newman was initially hired to write the film score; however, Petersen considered his composition to be almost a parody and commissioned Jerry Goldsmith to write and record a more sombre and patriotic score in just twelve days, with assistance from Joel McNeely. After the experience, Goldsmith vowed to never again take on such a last-minute task.
The music label Varèse Sarabande released a soundtrack album featuring Goldsmith’s music. McNeely receives a credit on the back cover for “Additional Music in the Motion Picture”, but none of his work is on the CD, although his cues include the material heard when Air Force One is under attack. On 27 September 2019, a 2-CD release featuring the full score was released.
The first track of the soundtrack, “The Parachutes”, was used by Donald Trump during his campaign for President of the United States in 2016. The track was played in the background at the New York Hilton Midtown prior to Trump’s victory speech, following Hillary Clinton’s concession. The track was used repeatedly at campaign events with the Trump plane as background, leading the film’s producer to ask him to stop using it.
The film was a box office success and received mostly positive critical reviews.
One of the most popular action films of the 1990s, Air Force One earned $172,650,002 (54.9%) domestically and $142,200,000 (45.1%) in other countries. It grossed a total of $315,156,409 worldwide in the box office. It was the year’s fifth highest-grossing film worldwide.
A novelisation of the film was published in June 1997 by author Max Allan Collins. Although the book has the same central plot and outcomes as the film, its main storyline has additional scenes and lines not in the film. The book develops characters more than the film. Marshall is described as possessing a smile that is described in the novel as “the most valuable weapon in his public relations arsenal” (p.11). He promotes an interventionist line on foreign policy and a strong stance against terrorism (met with political opposition from opposition Speaker of the House, Franklin Danforth, in the novel). He is described as a first-term President, up for re-election later on in the year that the film is set in. Marshall’s home state is Iowa. A two-term former governor of Iowa in the novel, he first campaigns in the film for the US House.
He graduated from University of Iowa in the early 1970s in the novel and may also have attended the University of Notre Dame. His senior Staff and Cabinet include Vice President Kathryn Bennett (former congresswoman and trial attorney from New Jersey), Chief of Staff Lloyd Shepherd (an old friend from U of I), National Security Advisor Jack Doherty, Secretary of Defense Walter Dean, Deputy NSA Director Thomas Lee, Deputy Press Secretary Melanie Mitchell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Northwood, Air Force General Greeley (who Marshall served under in Vietnam). His Party is Republican in the novel.
Marshall is described in the novel as “a moderate-Republican version of Bill Clinton, minus the womanizing reputation, and without a hint of personal or professional scandal” (p. 99-100). Korushunov’s family is expanded upon, and it is revealed that Korushunov is not his real name. Unlike the movie, Gibbs’s identity as the traitor is not revealed until the end of the book. It also hints at his motivation: “What he did remember, as he sipped his coffee, was that he knew these men, had worked with these men, and it was a damn shame they had to die so that he could be wealthy.” Korushunov later tells Marshall he “paid” him off. It also presents a slightly alternative ending: in the novel, Air Force One crashes in the Russian countryside, but in the film, it crashes into the Caspian Sea.
Air Force One was released on VHS, LaserDisc, and DVD on 10 February 1998, and on Blu-ray on 02 June 2009. A 4K UHD Blu-ray followed on 06 November 2018.
The US LaserDisc release of the film is notorious among LaserDisc collectors as being extremely prone to “Laser rot”, a form of optical disc degradation, due to repeat production issues at the Sony DADC facility where the discs were produced.
- Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman are actually hitting each other during their fight scenes
- Initially director Wolfgang Petersen was denied access to the real-life Air Force One.
- A telephone call from Harrison Ford to the White House soon changed that.
- The lead role was written for Kevin Costner, but he was heavily committed to The Postman (1997), and suggested Harrison Ford for the part.
- One day during filming, two F/A-18 fighters appeared and radioed in a surprised report that the plane they had been asked to identify was Air Force One and there were bullet holes in it (They were actually decals).
- The air traffic control centre in Los Angeles knew about the filming, and was able to set them straight.
- When Ivan gives his thumbprint for a background check near the beginning of the film, the date of birth that comes up among his info (3/21/58) is Gary Oldman’s real birthday.
- Although there are two specific VC-25’s (the military version of the 747-200B) used and maintained by the Air Force for the President’s use, the “Air Force One” designation is the air traffic control sign of any United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States (with Army, Navy, Marine, or Coast Guard aircraft being referred to as “Army One”, “Navy One”, et cetera, and civilian aircraft being referred to as “Executive One”).
- A similar system is used for the Vice President, but with “Two” in place of “One.” In the film, the Army UH-60 Blackhawk that delivers the Vice President to the White House would have the designation “Army Two.”
- The final sequence where a cable is extended from an MC-130 to the 747 was filmed near California’s Channel Islands. Paul Bishop flew the 747 in formation within a few feet of the MC-130.
- The camera plane, a modified B-25, had a top speed of about 230 miles per hour, so the sequence was filmed at about 200 miles per hour, and the 747 had to be flown with flaps extended.
- This sequence is a nearly a shot-for-shot copy of a similar air to air rescue involving an MC-130 and a Boeing 747 in Airport 1975 (1974).
- The sequence set at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, was filmed at Rickenbacker International Airport, Columbus, Ohio.
- Because the aircraft had to be visible, even though the scene was supposedly taking place at night, a small amount of sky light was required.
- This restricted filming to two fifteen-minute intervals each day, at dusk and dawn.
- President Bill Clinton saw the film twice while in office and gave it good reviews. He noted that certain elements of the film’s version of Air Force One, such as the escape pod and the rear parachute ramp, did not reflect features of the actual Air Force One (though since many Air Force One features are highly classified and “need-to-know”, these features cannot be completely ruled out).
- In the audio commentary, Wolfgang Petersen mused that although the real plane did not have those features at the time of the filming, they would probably be added by future governments.
- During his campaign for the Presidency of the United States in the 2016 presidential election, businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said he admired Ford for his role in Air Force One because he “stood up for America”.
- Ford responded by reasoning that “it was just a film” and doubted Trump’s presidential bid would be successful.
- A Wall Street Journal poll in 2016 named Harrison Ford’s James Marshall as the greatest fictional president.
Production & Filming Details
- Wolfgang Petersen.
- Marc Abraham … executive producer.
- Armyan Bernstein … producer (produced by).
- Thomas A. Bliss … executive producer.
- Gail Katz … producer (produced by).
- Peter Kohn … associate producer.
- David V. Lester … executive producer (as David Lester).
- Mary Montiforte … associate producer.
- Wolfgang Petersen … producer (produced by).
- Jon Shestack … producer (produced by).
- Andrew W. Marlowe.
- Jerry Goldsmith.
- Michael Ballhaus.
- Richard Francis-Bruce.
- Columbia Pictures (presents) (as Columbia Pictures).
- Beacon Communications (presents) (as Beacon Pictures).
- Radiant Productions (as Radiant).
- Beacon Pictures.
- Etalon Film.
- Touchstone Pictures.
- Buena Vista International (1997) (Argentina) (theatrical).
- Buena Vista International (1997) (Germany) (theatrical).
- Buena Vista International (1997) (UK) (theatrical).
- Buena Vista International (1997) (Japan) (theatrical).
- Buena Vista International (1997) (Netherlands) (theatrical).
- Buena Vista International (1997) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- Columbia Pictures (1997) (USA) (theatrical).
- Falcon (1997) (Czech Republic) (theatrical).
- Filmes Lusomundo (1997) (Portugal) (theatrical).
- Finnkino (1997) (Finland) (theatrical).
- Gaumont Buena Vista International (GBVI) (1997) (France) (theatrical).
- Modi Films International (1997) (India) (theatrical).
- Roadshow Entertainment (1997) (Australia) (theatrical).
- Sony Pictures Releasing (1997) (USA) (theatrical).
- Abril Vídeo (1998) (Brazil) (VHS).
- American Broadcasting Company (ABC) (2000) (USA) (TV).
- BBC Three (2011) (UK) (TV).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (1999) (Brazil) (DVD).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2007) (Germany) (Blu-ray).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2007) (Denmark) (Blu-ray).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2007) (Spain) (Blu-ray).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (1997) (Finland) (VHS).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2001) (Finland) (DVD).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (1998) (France) (VHS) (dubbed version).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2007) (France) (Blu-ray).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2007) (UK) (Blu-ray).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2007) (Italy) (Blu-ray).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2002) (Netherlands) (DVD).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2007) (Netherlands) (Blu-ray).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2007) (Netherlands) (Blu-ray) (DVD).
- Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2007) (Turkey) (DVD).
- Buena Vista Home Video (1997) (Netherlands) (VHS).
- Canal+ (1999) (France) (TV) (dubbed version).
- Canal+ (Netherlands) (TV) (limited).
- Ciné+ (2020) (France) (TV).
- Columbia TriStar Home Video (1998) (USA) (DVD).
- Columbia TriStar Home Video (1998) (USA) (VHS).
- Divisa Home Video (2014) (Spain) (DVD).
- France 3 (FR 3) (2012) (France) (TV).
- Gativideo (1998) (Argentina) (VHS).
- Gativideo (2003) (Argentina) (DVD).
- HD1 (2017) (France) (TV).
- Mainostelevisio (MTV3) (2004) (Finland) (TV).
- Nelonen (2000) (Finland) (TV).
- Nu Metro Home Entertainment (1999) (South Africa) (DVD).
- Paris Première (2012) (France) (TV).
- Paris Première (2019) (France) (TV).
- Sandrew Metronome Distribution (1999) (Finland) (DVD).
- Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (2009) (USA) (Blu-ray).
- Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (2018) (USA) (all media) (Ultra HD Blu-ray).
- TF1 (2001) (France) (TV) (dubbed version).
- TF1 (2009) (France) (TV).
- TV3 (2020) (Estonia) (TV).
- Télé Monté Carlo (TMC) (2007) (France) (TV).
- Télé Monté Carlo (TMC) (2017) (France) (TV).
- Téva (2015) (France) (TV).
- Veronica (2016) (Netherlands) (TV).
- W9 (2010) (France) (TV).
- W9 (2019) (France) (TV).
- Warner Home Video (1999) (Germany) (DVD).
- Warner Home Video (2008) (Germany) (DVD) (Wolfgang Petersen Film Collection).
- Warner Home Video (1999) (UK) (DVD).
- Warner Home Video (1999) (Netherlands) (DVD).
- Release Date: 21 July 1997 (Century City, California, US; Premiere).
- Running Time: 124 minutes.
- Rating: 15.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.