Harrison Ford is the U.S. President, James Marshall (in a surprisingly good move for Hollywood, the film never divulges his political leanings...both Democrats and Republicans can claim him as one of their own!) After making a speech against terrorism in Moscow, wouldn't you know it, President Marshall finds himself the victim of a terrorist attack. In particular, one Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman), along with the traditional gang of dispensable associates, hijacks the world's most secure airplane, Air Force One. In typical John McClaine fashion, it's up to the president to lay low and pick off the terrorists one-by-one, in order to save his staff and his family (First Lady Wendy Crewson, and First Daughter Liesel Matthews), and to truly stand up against terrorism.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Washington, there's a Constitutional crisis going on. Vice President Katharine Bennett (Glenn Close) and the remaining cabinet members must figure out how to deal with the terrorists, and must figure out who should be in charge.
Harrison Ford has previously proven his worth as an action hero many times over. Here, as an ideal president, he demonstrates his presidential caliber. He is able to create the suspension of disbelief necessary for us to accept an action-hero-President, and we buy the whole bit.
Gary Oldman adds yet another sterling portrayal to his collection. This time, he creates a layered villain, not just the raving lunatic or smooth megalomaniac common to the genre. His planning doesn't go perfect, yet he adapts to the situations as they arise. He makes some classic movie villain mistakes, but he makes them believable.
The supporting cast, though not as riveting as the two leads, hold up well. Wendy Crewson is sympathetic as the First Lady, though she's not given much to do. Glenn Close is believable as the Vice President. And although she makes a very poor decision at a critical moment, it doesn't come back to bite her.
Director Wolfgang Petersen deserves some special credit. Although the movie is extremely formulaic, and if you were to think about it, you can see exactly where every scene will lead, somehow he manages to make the movie thrilling. The facts that cliches are all around and that we've seen this setup before fade away as you're drawn into the action. Sure, the film borrows liberally from Die Hard (even to the point of including the surly telephone operator and the cocky short-lived hostage who thinks he can negotiate better than the terrorists), but as it goes on, you don't really care. On reflection, the movie doesn't hold up as well, but in the midst he keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Is Air Force one formulaic? Yes. Is it gimmicky? Yes. Does it work? Yes.