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The President as Action Hero


    Photo © 1997 Columbia Pictures by Claudette Barius

    Air Force One is an action thriller starring Harrison Ford as U.S. President James Marshall, who finds himself prisoner when a terrorist group takes his plane hostage.

    AIR FORCE ONE (A-4, R) was summer’s self-indulgent, great American fantasy movie. Not only do we triumph over some of our more nightmarish post-Cold War enemies but nearly all of us look good doing it.

    The president looks especially good, here played by Harrison Ford, the quintessential straight-ahead American hero, successor to Gary Cooper, James Stewart and the Duke—John Wayne. Ford is the U.S. president as action hero, enduring physical punishment and dishing it out, literally flying the flagship of state (Air Force One) through a sky full of hazards.

    He also stands up, in the hairiest circumstances, for the American family—not just in easy speeches but while a very scary foreign terrorist threatens to blow away his wife (Wendy Crewson) and adolescent daughter (Liesel Matthews). The office hasn’t received a whole lot of respect in recent decades in either movies or “reality,” but One continues the tribute implicit in the glorious victory of the president-hero in last year’s Independence Day.

    The glow carries over to others. For example, back in the organized chaos of the White House war room, the female vice president (Glenn Close) doesn’t slug it out with the terrorists but has to make enough courageous, gut-check decisions to emerge as co-hero. (Some of the other generals and politicians are more routinely self-serving.) The net effect is to make you feel good about the United States, which is nice but can also lead to pride and arrogance. If you need a gulp of red-white-and-blue euphoria, get it here.

    It’s a high-voltage plot: The first family, and scores of aides and press, are hostages in the world’s most famous 747 with the fate of millions at stake. Is it credible? What isn’t these days? Here, Russian nationalists, led by a resolute Kazak fanatic (convincing Gary Oldman), hijack the jet as it leaves Moscow.

    As the situation settles into suspense mode, the hijackers take a long while to realize the prez himself is still on board, trying to lead a rescue from below decks. He had promised never to “give in” to terrorism, but in this crisis he proves to be human.

    Director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire) is a genuine talent and makes the film work on many levels, from the physical (the plane’s mostly imagined interior design and high-tech gear, the aerial and interior action, the dazzling parachute escape of many of the hostages) to the psychological and moral. Riveting, often thoughtful action thriller; profanity; tense and vivid violence: With these reservations, recommended for mature viewers.


    MRS. BROWN (A-3, PG): This is a Victorian love story (chaste and restrained) about Queen Victoria herself. It’s a story that could not be told in its day, although the basics were well enough known in parliament and rumored about in the pubs, where “the royals” have always been a major focus of obsession and discussion.

    The facts: In 1840 at age 21, the queen married her consort Albert, a romantic union that produced nine children. When Albert died of typhoid after two blissful decades of marriage, Victoria went into isolation and a deep mourning that essentially lasted the remaining 40 years of her life.

    The exception was the relationship of the queen (Judi Dench, a senior diva of the British stage) with John Brown (gruff, virile Billy Connolly). He was a brash Scottish highlander, a friend of Albert, who arrived to become the royal family’s horse caretaker and hunting guide. He “speaks up” to the monarch, restores her spirits and establishes himself as her loyal protector and companion. Thus comes the title, a name given sardonically to Victoria by political hecklers.

    Jeremy Brock’s screenplay leaves little doubt of their love, though it avoids sexual scenes. (As late as the 1930’s, a play about Victoria’s personal life was banned in Britain.) The major romantic moment: Brown kisses Victoria’s hand with some passion as they pause during a ride in the windy highlands. “Without you, I cannot live,” she says, “or find the strength to be who I must be.”

    The story is amusing and pretty, but sad. (Brown precedes Victoria in death by several decades.) Director John Madden explores the political stresses that the relationship caused. But the memorable images are of castles, landscapes, the quaint habits of the time, and a man and woman who found gentleness and affection despite their fates as celebrities. Dench makes an impressive Queen Victoria, who served as a queenly model for honesty and devotion to family. Satisfactory romantic drama; for mature viewers.


    CONSPIRACY THEORY (A-3, R) is another film about a contract killer as a hero. (That’s O.K. He’s been brainwashed.) There’s an attempt to make fun of conspiracy theories, probably reaching their zenith in these early days of the Internet. (But in the end, there are several huge, real conspiracies.) Above all, there’s the first-time teaming of two beautiful stars (Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts) in hopes they’ll make box-office chemistry. (Ummm. Yes, they do.)

    The first hour of Conspiracy Theory is amusing in its way. Mel Gibson is Jerry, a mild-mannered but apparently wacko New York cab driver who collects and manufactures conspiracy theories, ranging from fluoride poisoning the water to secret sperm banks for genetic selection. He’s constantly telling them to his passengers, or even empty back seats, publishes a newsletter and tries to pass copies on to Alice (Julia Roberts), a federal investigator he obviously admires.

    Gibson is funny and poignant. Roberts rolls her eyes but is kind to him. It looks like a romantic story about a guy who’s not quite sane enough to win the girl. (In fact, the script seems a parody of the classic Taxi Driver.) The writing is sharp, especially in using the contrarian hypotheses so central to madness: Friends are really enemies, conservatives are really liberals, the Church really speaks for Satan.

    Alas, it turns out that bad guys (especially an evil agent suavely played by Patrick Stewart) really are out to get Jerry. Meanwhile, there’s another intelligence agency watching all these loose cannons from the Cold War. And so it goes, until your head aches.

    Most of Theory involves Gibson getting snatched by Stewart’s guys and Roberts helping him escape. Some is scary and violent—the director is Richard Donner of the Lethal Weapon series. Some of it is played for comedy and tries to be too clever. Little of it is moving or human, or especially gripping. Imaginative for a while, then hits the standard action-movie wall; genre violence and torture; problem language; for mature viewers, but not recommended.


    OUT TO SEA (A-3, PG-13): Veterans Walter Matthau (76) and Jack Lemmon (72) return for a late-career broad-comedy reprise that has a few nifty moments, but it mostly recalls the ups and downs of the old Love Boat TV series.

    They’re not their “grumpy old men” characters: They’re brothers-in-law who sign on as dance hosts on a Caribbean cruise. Matthau schemes to catch a rich woman, Lemmon still mourns the death of his spouse of 46 years. They’re soon matched up with Dyan Cannon (60), who is herself a scheming gold digger, and Gloria DeHaven (73), as a charming and vulnerable widow.

    The plot is ancient—“real” love develops and the characters have to reveal themselves as phonies. The depth level is minimal and much of the comedy skews silly. But the stars, always easy to watch—even in steerage class—work. Ace one wonderful routine in which Jack tries to teach clumsy Walter how to dance. Other veterans (Hal Linden, Donald O’Connor, Elaine Stritch) are wasted, but Brent Spiner (currently starring as John Adams in the revival of 1776 on Broadway) shines as an obnoxious singing-and-dancing chief dance host. Broad, occasionally coarse; O.K. for mature viewers.


    OZ (HBO): This brutal and shocking fictional series about the horrific existence of inmates in a contemporary American prison gave viewers no place to hide. Creator Tom Fontana is a superb Emmy-winning writer (St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life on the Street) and has always been Catholic oriented. But Oz, an eight-episode summer series, raised real questions about how an art form as graphic as film ought to deal with moral ugliness.

    Fontana rubbed our noses in a subject most of us simply don’t want to think about. And even in the depths of his man-made hell, he found moving humanity and characters who are credible channels of grace and signs of transcendence.

    Fontana has given us an unforgettably gritty portrayal of “life” in a place where more than a million Americans now work out their daily existence. As Catholics who presumably care about even the least of our brethren, we ought to have courage enough to face and come to terms with it.

    “I think there’s enough Prozac television,” says Fontana, tongue at least partly in cheek, “—comforting, undisturbing, gentle, huggy, squeezy television....I think people who like grim television deserve to have a place to go on a weekly basis.” Yeah, well, maybe.


    PLEDGE TREAT: PBS is usually reliable TV, but it overachieves during its pledge periods. Especially notable this season was the one-hour tribute to songwriter Johnny Mercer (“Too Marvelous for Words”), with Margaret Whiting, Johnny Mathis, Melissa Manchester and others. Mercer, who died in 1976, wrote lyrics for many of the standards of the mid-century (among them, “Black Magic,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Days of Wine and Roses”). You can argue about it, but pop music since that age has somewhere misplaced its sense of joy in language.


    VIOLENCE RECONSIDERED: An important new book (Lethal Violence in America, by Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins) uses historical and geographical studies to discredit the idea that media cause violence. Movies and TV are violent everywhere in the world, but violence in America is hugely greater than in western Europe, Australia or Japan. What’s more, the murder rate in New York has been five times higher than London’s for the last 200 years! While guns and racial issues contribute to our problems, they’re not significantly to blame either. The authors pinpoint the predominance of hostility and anger in American encounters as the heart of this persistent curse on our society.


    WELCOME BACK: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, the 1957 John Huston film about a Marine and an Irish nun (Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr) stranded on a Pacific island during World War II, is finally available on video (Facets, 1-800-532-2387). It’s also been shown on cable. Other recommended recent releases are: the Star Wars trilogy, Mary Poppins and Rosewood (for mature viewers).

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