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Trust Harrison Ford To Play With Right Balance Of Strength

Fri., Feb. 13, 1998

Years ago, in the college political science class a friend of mine was taking, he was given an interesting assignment.

Construct your ideal of a government, he was instructed. Design the whole structure, from leader on down.

He was a pretty smart guy (even then, in 1970, he knew enough to pursue a job in computers and has made enough money over the decades to retire at least twice) and, after long thought, he came up with what he figured was the perfect solution.

“Make me emperor of the world,” he wrote. “I’ll take care of everything.”

I can’t remember what kind of a grade he received. It probably wasn’t a very good one (it’s the rare teacher who appreciates humor at his or her expense).

He would have done better had he suggested making Harrison Ford the emperor.

In the history of Hollywood, only a few actors have engendered the kind of trust in viewers that Harrison Ford has. And hardly any of them would have fit well in the White House.

James Cagney would have made a good Secretary of Defense. James Stewart proved himself as a member of the U.S. Senate (see “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”). Gary Cooper could be presidential, but his demeanor was more appropriate for the 19th century. And Cary Grant would be most appropriate as the ambassador to Great Britain (maybe double-tasking as the head of the CIA).

John Wayne? Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of course.

There are others, to be sure. But no one fits the office quite the way that Ford does (even his name is presidential, eh?).

That’s why he is so good in “Air Force One” (which is now available on video, see capsule review below). Similar to other summer-type thrillers of recent vintage, the film pits Agents for Good against evildoers who either want to extort money (“Die Hard” ad nauseum) or spread violence to peaceful lands that live off war’s spoils (“The Peacemaker”).

Ford has worked his way up the ladder.

For example, in the “Star Wars” trilogy he plays the consummate outsider who, ultimately, earns a general’s stars in the Rebel army. He stars as military types in such films as “Force 10 From Navarone” and “Apocalypse Now.”

But he got close to the seat of ultimate American power in the Tom Clancy films.

In “Patriot Games” as CIA operative Jack Ryan, a role that he took over from Alec Baldwin, Ford first saves a member of the British royal family from an IRA assassination squad, then he saves some unsuspecting targets by helping to eliminate a terrorist training camp. Finally, he helps save his own family from the same IRA killers (especially Sean Bean).

In “Clear and Present Danger,” Ryan comes up against a corrupt American intelligence community and a president (slickly played by Donald Moffat) so bent on avenging his friend’s death that he bends the law past recognition. Even worse, the president deserts the U.S. troops that he’s commissioned to do the dirty work, and he attempts to weasel out of responsibility when things go wrong.

Ford’s Ryan, thank Hollywood, is there to set things straight.

A note on Ford’s acting: He’s never been what you would call versatile. The same stalwart nature that makes him so good as an authority figure often fails him when he tries to portray weakness (see “Regarding Henry”).

In “Air Force One,” however, he combines the two - weakness and strength - and comes up with a hybrid that represents some of his best acting to date. When Gary Oldman holds a gun to his daughter’s head, and he has to choose between her and nuclear weapons that will decimate Washington, Ford wavers with just the right amount of contained panic.

Han Solo couldn’t have done any better.

Air Force One ***-1/2

If you can get past the obvious jingoism, this airborne thriller by Wolfgang Petersen (“Das Boot”) is an exciting combination of pure fantasy and quasi-realism. Harrison Ford stars as an American president who, after delivering a get-tough speech on terrorism, is forced to deal with Russian terrorists who take over the presidential jet with the intent of freeing their jailed leader (Jurgen Prochnow). Giving his character the human touch, Gary Oldman portrays a man so committed to his plan that even cold-blooded murder won’t stop him. But he hasn’t wagered on a tough president who has a few moves, not to mention surprises, of his own. Ford is superb, as is Oldman, and Petersen moves the plot over the occasional bumpy spot with ample skill. For what it is, “Air Force One” couldn’t be much better. Rated R

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo


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