Old Friends

25 Years Ago, Harrison Ford Topped Indiana Jones With His Best Action Movie Ever

Air Force One is a one-of-a-kind action flick. It's hard to believe it ever happened.

Gary Oldman aiming gun at Harrison Ford in a scene from the film 'Air Force One', 1997. (Photo by Co...
Columbia Pictures/Moviepix/Getty Images

Get off my plane! In 1997, America’s favorite dad-ish action hero, Harrison Ford, became the President of the United States. If you don’t remember that Ford’s fictional US President in Air Force One was named President James Marshall, it’s probably only because “President Ford” would have sounded weird. As it stands Air Force One — which hit theaters 25 years ago on July 25, 1997, and topped the box office in August of that year — is the greatest Harrison Ford action movie, specifically because Harrison Ford is simply playing himself.

The greatest Harrison Ford movie of all time is debatable and that’s because there are basically two opposing criteria for great Harrison Ford movies. You’re either saying the greatest Harrison Ford movie is a great movie and Harrison Ford happens to be in it or you're saying it’s the greatest Harrison Ford movie because it represents the totality of what Harrison Ford is known for in the zeitgeist. To put it another way, one way to assess great Harrison Ford movies is only about the art itself, and the other way is golden record/time capsule logic; I.E. if there were one Harrison Ford movie you could show to people 100 years from now, or preserve for future space alien anthropologists, you wouldn’t pick Witness or Frantic.

But, arguably, instead of one of the Star Wars or Indiana Jones films, picking Air Force One as the greatest Harrison Ford movie ever makes perfect sense because it’s a movie that can only exist because of Harrison Ford’s inherent Harrison Fordness. We don’t remember that his character named “James Marshall,” because we only think of the movie in one way: That great ‘90s movie where Harrison Ford kicks ass as the President of the United States.

Harrison Ford and director Wolfgang Petersen as the debut of Air Force One.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc/Getty Images

Air Force One is like a meme of all of Harrison Ford’s importance in American culture up until that point. It’s the microcosm of how we wanted to think about Harrison Ford, he’s a badass, but he’s also a good-ass. And in this case, he’s a US President who seems more down-to-Earth than he really is, and that’s because Ford is playing him. Trying to unpack the everyman-charm of Harrison Ford is an intellectual ouroboros; you either unquestionably love his cinematic persona, or you’ve never seen his famous movies.

Directed brilliantly by Wolfgang Petersen (The NeverEnding Story, Das Boot), the movie is a by-the-numbers-action thriller rooted in just enough realism to make you buy it, but not too much realism that the movie can’t happen. Terrorists hijacking Air Force One with the President on the plane feels legit enough, and the casting of Gary Oldman helps because 1997 was smack-dab in the middle of Gary Oldman’s run as the go-to baddie for every major movie of the time. (Seriously, The Fifth Element came out the same year, and then Oldman played the evil Dr. Smith in Lost in Space the following year!) Oldman’s performance isn’t unforgettable or anything, in fact, it’s actually fairly generic. For most of us, revisiting the movie elicits the reaction of oh of course Gary Oldman is the bad guy in this. It’s a foregone conclusion the same way nobody is shocked today when Kevin Hart suddenly appears in a movie that also stars the Rock.

This is all to say that Air Force One feels like an action movie that has always existed, even before it actually was made. And, all of those feelings have almost nothing to do with the movie itself. The elevator pitch is the entire movie: What if Harrison Ford was the President of the United States and fought terrorists on Air Force One? If the movie didn’t already exist, it would be greenlit immediately.

In fact, because Ford was 55 years old when he made Air Force One, it might be more realistic for him to do it again now, in 2022. At 80 years old, Harrison Ford basically is the age of a contemporary US president, making one wonder: when the hell are we getting Air Force One-TWO?! Maybe the tagline for the trailer is simple: Get back on my plane!

Air Force One (1997) streaming

You can rent Air Force One in a variety of different places, including Amazon, and YouTube.