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POWER OF THE PREZ

"Get 'em off my tail," snarls the angry pilot of Air Force One to his escort of jet fighters. Russian MiGs from the breakaway republic of Kazakhstan are taking potshots at the president's plane, and despite all the pilot's evasions and the supremely sophisticated neutralizing technology on board, some of the rockets are taking a toll.

The pilot, in this case, happens to be the president himself. And if you think there's anything the slightest bit trivial about that outlandish fantasy, you're living in a fantasy world of your own -- and deluding yourself into thinking it's hard-bitten "reality."

"Air Force One" is one of the two biggest pleasures of the cinematic summer, the other being John Woo's wild and outrageous "Face/Off." ("Contact" would have been in another and higher class entirely if it weren't for a final 15 minutes of truly felonious cowardice and fatuosity. It's like watching someone keep up a world-record mile pace and then breaking an ankle in the last 30 meters and crashing to the cinders.)

"Air Force One" is a terrific action thriller about what happens when a bunch of terrorists in disguise as a Russian news crew take over Air Force One. Their intent is to hold the president, his family and staff hostage until Moscow releases an imprisoned Kazakhstan strongman who wants to go back to old-style Sovietski oppression.

It's a terrific action thriller, about as taut and tense and professionally put together as can be. None of that will surprise anyone who saw Wolfgang Petersen's previous fantasy of presidential peril, "In the Line of Duty." These are near-classics of the genre, it seems to me. What I honestly don't know is whether it seems that way because Petersen's two presidential thrillers are really that good (they're certainly memorable) or because so few directors these days have the rudiments, much less the refinements, to make such movies well.

Believe me, it is no accident that the hero -- in every possible sense of the word -- of "Air Force One" is a president who punches out marauding terrorists, riddles them with Uzi fire, takes their best punches and gobs of spittle in his face and then throws them off his back cargo bay over the Caspian Sea.

He isn't quite a match for the fighter-pilot president who saves the entire planet from despoiling aliens in "Independence Day," but he's from the same general order of fantasy.

Make no mistake, these are Clinton-era movies. They're both about strapping, light-haired presidents of Clinton's generation and Clinton-size immediate families. But instead of a waffling former draft evader who presides over America like the host of an afternoon talk show, the two fantasy presidents are former war heroes who, when push comes to shove, say tough resolute things and kick serious butt. These are not fellows who blow out their knee ligaments stumbling at Greg Norman's house.

We used to believe in presidential heroism. Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy were all heroes of a sort to millions. Reagan was no war hero but at least he played one in the movies. Clinton isn't an antihero. He's nothing so resolute or programmatic. He's just an un-hero in the same way as 7-Up is the Un-cola. He's made up of entirely different stuff, none of which could be classified as heroic.

And yet we seem to hunger deeply for presidential heroism -- all the more so in an era when entertainment constantly seeks to reinforce and reward cynicism.

Hence "Air Force One" is by all odds the damnedest presidential fantasy the Clinton era is likely to give us.

In this one, Gary Oldman and his squad of junior varsity terrorists take over the plane and hold the first lady and first daughter hostage. Harrison Ford, as the president, mounts increasingly successful guerrilla countertactics from inside the bowels of the craft.

When we first see him, he's in Moscow toasting a Russian victory over breakaway terrorists in Kazakhstan. "Never again," he says. "Atrocity and terrorism are not political weapons. To those who would use them, your day is over. . . . It's your turn to be afraid."

In the next two hours, the terrorists, in effect, say to him, "Put up or shut up."

It is there that Hollywood no doubt realizes what a precious natural resource Harrison Ford is. He is, perhaps, the only actor under 60 who has the solidity great Hollywood actors used to have. I've been saying that since "Witness," but movies like "Air Force One" only reveal how priceless Ford really is. (Picture this movie starring Michael Douglas, who played the Clinton-with-backbone figure in "The American President." It doesn't work.)

In a movie era when squeaky-voiced twerps, muscleheads, wiseacres and designer-cologne models tend to make up the landscape of masculinity under age 60, Ford is virtually alone as a figure of inner strength and rectitude, a classic, slow-talking movie image of homo Americanus, always hoping to be reasonable but ready, when necessary, to whack heads from here to the Caspian Sea and back.

That's just about what the president has to do in "Air Force One" in all manner of pulse-quickening, toe-curling sequences that are preposterous but so superbly filmed and put together that they seem ravingly plausible.

Glenn Close plays his frazzled vice president in Washington, and Dean Stockwell, no less, plays his weaselly, power-grubbing secretary of defense. (Dean Stockwell? The secretary of defense? This movie is so well-made, you almost buy it -- almost.)

Gary Oldman is nicely menacing as the lead terrorist, who, he says, "would turn my back on God himself for Mother Russia." He's a nicely drawn psychotic who isn't overly impressed with American rectitude. "You'll kill 100,000 Iraqis to save a nickel on a gallon of gas," he sneers.

The movie might have lost about eight minutes or so at the end without fatal consequences, but no more than that. It was clearly made by a man who knows exactly how such things are done -- and how exciting for card-carrying grown-ups they are when they're done well.

Hollywood ought to be almost as grateful to have a German emigre like Petersen around as it is to have that ultra-American Harrison Ford -- who is virtually his generation's one-man Rushmore.

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