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Moviemakers Combine Credibility And Creativity In ‘Air Force One’

Terrorists hijack Air Force One. Secret Service agents hustle the president into a secret escape pod. He refuses to eject, and slinks around the plane freeing hostages.

If you’re looking for escapist summer fare, “Air Force One,” opening Friday, offers a whale of a tale.

Could any of it really happen? Parts of the Columbia Pictures film are credible - the footage inside Air Force One looks fairly realistic and the plane could be refueled in flight as depicted - but creative minds clearly have taken liberties.

Take the escape pod, which looks like a capsule for sending chimps into orbit. No such thing, says the Air Force.

In the movie, the escape pod parachutes safely to Earth, and U.S. officials are shocked to find that it’s empty. President James Marshall, played by Harrison Ford, has refused to bail out when Kazak terrorists (led by Gary Oldman) are holding his wife and 12-year-old daughter among the hostages.

Alas, Marshall, too, is eventually captured. But not before he manages to kill a few terrorists, hold hushed consultations with the White House from a cellular phone in the Boeing 747’s baggage compartment, sneak upstairs to fax refueling instructions to the vice president (Glenn Close) and help dozens of hostages parachute out an escape hatch in the tail cone.

The phone call and the fax could have happened, but the jumbo jet’s escape hatch is pure fantasy.

At another point, the president and other hostages are whooshed one by one to another U.S. plane by sliding along a solitary tether line.

“There was a considerable degree of artistic license throughout the picture and that was certainly one of the examples,” says Phil Strub, the Pentagon’s movie liaison officer. “We understand that these are movies, not documentaries or newsreels.”

What about the idea that the whole plot is set in motion by a rogue Secret Service agent who knocks off some of his colleagues in flight and arms the terrorists? Any takeover of the plane would almost have to be an inside job, because of the formidable barriers to smuggling arms on board. But agents on the White House detail are the cream of the crop and not one has ever betrayed the president.

“Secret Service agents are human beings,” said Larry Sheafe, a private security consultant and past Secret Service deputy director. “I suppose it’s conceivable for a Secret Service agent to go bad, but it certainly never has happened.”

Other high-tech features of the plane touted in the movie are closer to reality.

As depicted, the plane can be refueled in flight. In fact, it can remain airborne for a week or more at a time, although a midair refueling has never been tried when the president was on board.

Early in the film, a White House spokeswoman gives a visiting Russian film crew an in-flight tour of the plane and cheerily announces that the aircraft can withstand even the pulse of a nuclear blast. Later, the plane evades missile attacks from both U.S. and Russian fighter jets.

Air Force One really is equipped with an antimissile system and “hardened” communications gear designed to withstand the electronic waves generated by a nuclear blast. But even if equipped with missile defenses, a big, slow aircraft like a 747 would have limited ability to outmaneuver top fighter jets.

Moviegoers do get a fairly realistic view of what it’s like to travel in Air Force One style.

The big, cushy leather seats are all first class, there are televisions and telephones galore, the latest computers and other electronic devices abound, and there’s a private sleeping cabin and office for the president. That’s all true to life, although the large conference room in the movie is a lot more cramped in reality.

Oddly enough, despite the physical trappings of a first-class ride, the food on the real Air Force One consists of notoriously dreary military fare - breakfast burritos and tuna sandwiches are standard - but at least the beer and wine are plentiful. The main perk from flying on the president’s plane is the custom-made boxes of M&Ms; bearing the presidential seal.

As shown in the movie, a limited number of reporters and photographers do fly on Air Force One in a rear compartment behind the Secret Service cabin, although the press area isn’t nearly as large as depicted in the movie.

In the film, the visiting Russian film crew is actually a bunch of terrorist impostors. In fact, only reporters from a White House press pool who have security clearance are allowed on Air Force One.

The movie never explains how the impostors managed to pass a computerized check of their fingerprints.

For all the movie’s stretches, the filmmakers tried to keep it credible. Former Secret Service agent Bob Snow was one of several consultants, and Boeing Co. and the Pentagon also provided advice.

Snow said the goal was to keep technical aspects of the film as accurate as possible to lend credibility “even if the story line might be a little bit less than possible.”

MEMO: Editor’s note: Nancy Benac has traveled extensively on Air Force One as part of the White House press pool.

Editor’s note: Nancy Benac has traveled extensively on Air Force One as part of the White House press pool.