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Air Force One is a Hollywood blockbuster movie, starring A-list actor Harrison Ford as James Marshall, President of the USA. The plot deals with fictional political intrigue and the hijacking of Air Force One, the President's jumbo jet, by Russian terrorists. To many this movie would appear to be escapist entertainment and have no political content apart from the setting and subject of the film, and certainly without political meaning beyond the confines of the cinema. This essay will challenge such a view and claim that in fact Air Force One carries several political messages, as a form of political communication. 'Political communication' is a slippery term and one that defies easy definition. This essay will critically examine and endorse a broad cultural understanding of the term that has room for artistic forms of communication, including film. Specific reference will be made to the arguments of John Street for such a definition of 'political communication'.
Air Force One as Political Communication
A definition or understanding of political communication is dogged by the ambiguity of what counts as 'political' and what counts as 'communication'. Both terms have wide and fluid meanings from those that wish to limit the meaning to messages communicated by politicians to wider ideological meanings. Despite this difficulty several definitions exist. Denton and Woodward suggest that the �crucial factor that makes communication �political� is not the source of a message � but its content and purpose� (Cited in McNair, 1999, pp. 3-4). As McNair discusses their definition they claim it is the intention to influence the political environment that makes communication �political�. McNair follows Denton and Woodward in stressing intentionality in defining �political communication� as �purposeful communication about politics� (McNair, 1999, p. 4). The focus of McNair is very much on political actors and mainly politicians, in communications by them, to them and about them and their activities.
English scholar John Street offers a wider meaning than found among such communication scholars. Street�s understanding is based on the basis of power in society. The exercise of authoritative power being what politics is about:
Power relies on our �common sense� view of how the world is and how it works; threats and authority depend on how we perceive those who make those threats or claim that authority. These thoughts, the unexamined assumptions of our routines, help us to know our place and our identity. And they are daily disseminated through news and current affairs, situation comedies and blockbuster movies (Street, 2001, p.6).
This is a compelling approach to studying �political communication� since political actors and those they court for votes and support operate within the same cultural milieu, sharing a common language and values. Oftentimes we see or hear politicians use cultural icons for political purposes or make reference to culture in their political work. Street argues that the lines between entertainment and politics have become blurred in recent times (Street, 2001, p.3).
More generally, though, culture contributes to an understanding of the world that makes political activity easier for one ideological group than another. This is the �common sense� element of Street's definition. Common sense is culturally shaped and carries lots of ideological baggage. To those living in the capitalist west it is common sense that democracy is the best form of government, private ownership of the means of production is the best economic system and personal debt is commonplace. Yet these systems are recent historical innovations and ones that only recent generations have come to see as �normal�. While on the other hand we look aghast at apartheid, slavery, sending children down the salt mines � things common in our society until relatively recently. Yet for each of these political battles have been fought, won and lost. In each of these political battles politicians were certainly involved on both sides, but art was also on the sides of challenging and a normalising the status quo, through novels, plays and, eventually film.
In addition to the historical element, what can be considered �normal� in one place is anathema in another. A clear example of this in ideological terms is in twentieth century cinema and a comparison of Soviet and American film heroism. In Soviet cinema it was usually the collective that defeats evil of threats for the benefit of all. In American cinema it is the lone hero, the individual who defeats threats to freedom. While these broad approaches can be explained as products of a certain culture, they can also seen as supporting it and encouraging this view of the world. Street writes of the cultural connection in this way:
But entertainment is intimately linked to politics through the values it articulates and the passions it generates: think of the films of Oliver Stone or of the urban anger of hip-hop; think of the way every state censors and regulates access to popular culture (Street, 2001, p. 3).
Here Street takes issue with James Curran who, according to Street thinks that entertainment is not political because it does not involve rational exchange. Street is right that politics is about more than rational discourse. In addition to ideas emotion and fleeing and values move people to act in certain ways. In Air Force One there are appeals to several factors that move American audiences to action. There are various patriotic motifs in the film, such as the President trying to figure out which wires to cut to dump the plane's fuel. Obviously he did not cut the red, white or blue ones.
Another value throughout the film is the difference made between good violence and bad violence. Clearly the terrorists murder people, while the President defends people by killing others. That we consider some violence beneficial (especially when done by us against the baddies of this world) is called by theologian Walter Wink the "myth of redemptive violence":
The basic attitude is summed up in an episode of that ultimate spoof on the spy thriller, Get Smart. As I recall the scene decades after viewing it, the show ends with the villain being blown off a cliff to his death on the rocks below, tricked by a loaded cigarette. Agent 99 watches in horror, then comments, "You know, Max, sometimes I think we're no better than they are, the way we murder and kill and destroy people." To which Smart retorts, "Why, 99, you know we have to murder and kill and destroy in order to preserve everything that's good in the world" (Wink, 1998, p. 52).
This is precisely the position in Air Force One. The President kills several terrorists and we are supposed to cheer him on as he murders those who hate freedom. The only critique in the film comes from the terrorists themselves, who are also using violence to further their aims. As political communication the myth of redemptive violence generates support for policies that seek to use violence on the international scene. As Wink writes:
Not only does this myth establish a patriotic religion at the heart of the state, it gives divine sanction to that nation's imperialism. The myth of redemptive violence thus serves as the spirituality of militarism. By divine right the state has a power to demand that its citizens sacrifice their lives to maintain the privileges enjoyed by the few. By divine decree it utilizes violence to cleanse the world of enemies of the state (Wink, 1998, 56-7).
The myth of redemptive violence suggests that there is bad violence, that used against �innocent� civilians (usually women and children). This violence is performed by baddies, such as terrorists and Arabs, and those wearing a black hat. Good or redemptive violence is that performed by the goodies, such as the United States, the President and their allies. This is the common sense view endorsed by much of culture these days, particularly in popular entertainment. Air Force One endorses this myth. The killing of the terrorists is something that is legitimate and at which the audience should cheer. When the terrorists kill it is murder; when the United States kill it is justice.
We see several of these political messages in Air Force One. The doctrine of pre-emptive strike, introduced by President Bush in 2003, is anticipated in Air Force One during the opening minutes of the film. In the opening speech the President says with shame that America did not act in Kazakhstan until its own national security was threatened. The clear implication is that America should have acted to save the slaughter of women and children, that is to act in a pre-emptive fashion.
The Terrorist as a Discredited Critic
Air Force One has a pretty direct political message of pro-militarism and US patriotism. But that is not its only message. Contained within it is a critique of US foreign policy and an exposition of its hypocritical nature. At least twice the terrorist leader, Korshunov (played by Gary Oldman) says things which are common among critics of US foreign policy.
Firstly, he says to the President's daughter, after killing a Presidential aide on board the plane, that the President also kills:
KORSHUNOV: You know, your father he has also killed. Is he a bad man?
ALICE MARSHALL: That's not true.
KORSHUNOV: Why? Because he does it in a tuxedo with a telephone call and a smart bomb?
ALICE MARSHALL: You are a monster. And my father is a great man. You're nothing like my father.
The second time Korshunov criticises the hypocritical ethics of the First Lady who accuses him of murdering a second Presidential Aide. He replies angrily: �You, who murdered a 100,000 Iraqis to save a nickel on a galloon of gas are going to lecture me about the rules of war?�
The words of Korshunov are fair questions in an age of state terrorism and duplicity. Such �no blood for oil� type statements and analyses were a common one amongst anti-war protestors and analysts during both Gulf Wars. So what are doing in this film?
American political philosopher Leo Strauss made a distinction between exoteric and esoteric teaching in texts. One reading of Air Force One using his methodology would be that the terrorist is voicing a critique which needs to be heard but the only way to expose this view to the masses is to put these thoughts into the voice of someone discredited, an enemy of the USA and a terrorist. I doubt that the writer and director had this in mind when making the film, but perhaps they did.
Another view and one that I share is that this is an attempt to discredit peace activists and the critics of US policy, home and abroad. By putting these ideas into the mouth of a ruthless terrorist the filmmakers align this analysis of US foreign policy with terrorism and being anti-American. It encourages and reinforces the common sense idea that protestors against the war on Iraq and those who question American policy are nothing better than terrorists themselves.
Air Force One was made with military cooperation. Such cooperation is always conditional on Pentagon approval. This meant that the military has the opportunity to review the script and insist on changes for the price of their cooperation. David L. Robb documents numerous examples of this form of �censorship� in his book Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies.
In the chapter on Air Force One Robb, lists many of the comments in an Air Force memo on the original script. In many cases the comments would appear to make the film more realistic. For instance: �KC-10 would be an MC-130, in fact, especially since it's the same aircraft in which the special forces deployed earlier� (Robb, 2004, p. 104). Elsewhere the comments are to make the Air Force and military in general look good. One of the �showstoppers�, for example, is that �the bad guy/traitor can't be a Secret Service agent. Must be Chief of Staff or other White House appointee� (Robb, 2004, p. 102). This is clearly political communication, the ideological thrust from the Pentagon being to win political support for the military.
The thrust of Robb's book is that Pentagon cooperation comes at a heavy price of giving up control of the script and final form of the film. Those who go along with the Pentagon make films that are compromised and can end up looking like Pentagon propaganda. He suggests that films with Pentagon approval carry a political message about the military and the necessity for being ready for war. He writes:
propaganda is used in North Korea to make the people there more accustomed to being constantly on a war footing. But might this not be an unintended consequence in the United States as well of allowing the Pentagon to shape, sanitize and censor American films and television programmes? Certainly, the American people have become more warlike in the last fifty years. (Robb, 2004, p. 365)
While not discussed by Robb, it is notable that in Air Force One, President Marshall, as a former military man and Medal of Honor winner, is no wimp (like George Bush Snr was accused of being), but a fighting man who under threat will not negotiate but fight. Not only does his military background save the President, his family and the free world; it also saves the reputation of the Vietnam War. A clear message in the film is that the military skills and experience gained in Vietnam can be put to good use. It also sends the message that Vietnam veterans can lead good productive lives, indeed, even become President.
Air Force One Post 9/11
With the passing of time Air Force One has only become more relevant (as has Rambo Three, which deals with American arms running in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan). With the post 9/11 war of terrorism the film takes on new meanings. The movie's concern with the defeat of terrorism and the President standing up to terrorists is analogous to President Bush's War on Terror. This is one man's �crusade� against terrorists. With war being a major part of the policy of President Bush, a film like Air Force One lends ideological support to a strong military, linked closely with the White house and fighting against terror.
A close viewing of Air Force One reveals that it transmits several subtle and overt political messages. The film is a celebration of American patriotism and militarism. The United States is seen as a bulwark against terror and the protector of the free world. Violence by the United States is good; violence used by others for political purposes is terrorism and must be eliminated. This message has only become more politically charged and contentious since Air Force One was made in 1997.
A broad culturally-based understanding of political communication is supported by cultural artefacts such as Air Force One. There are many ideological features of the film that support a particular view of politics and political action. It specially contributes to a common sense view of the role of America in the world and thereby gives ideological support for an interventionist foreign policy for the United States. I thereby think that Street is quite right to maintain such a broad definition of �political communication� as he does.
- Air Force One (DVD) 1997 Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
- McNair, B. (1999). An Introduction to Political Communication (2nd edition) London: Routledge.
- Robb, D. L. (2004). Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies. Amherst: Prometheus.
- Street, J. (2001). Mass Media, Politics and Democracy. Houndmills: Palgrave.
- Wink, W. (1998). The powers that be: Theology for a new millennium. New York: Doubleday.