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In Conversation: Third And Long On Air Force One

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Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of undeveloped quarterbacks

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

“When Americans run in the streets at the mention of our name and our enemies beg for deliverance, you will know what I want.” – Gary Oldman, but also something I have definitely uttered word for word while watching my alma mater play Auburn

HOLLY: I suppose I ought to begin with a classic In These Uncertain Times intro, but y’all know why you’re here. It’s July; we’ve all been stuck in our homes for four months, and we are rapidly running out of Things To Do. In the theoretical scope of 2020, this is a terrific problem to have. In practice, we still have days to fill.

Fortunately for the cinéastes among the sports fan class, there remains a high-flying corner of the college football universe we haven’t yet excavated for morsels of entertainment. I am speaking, of course, of the Michigan-Notre Dame football contest that forms a partial backdrop to the 1997 Wolfgang Petersen film Air Force One, currently streaming on Netflix.

For you unlettered souls who have never experienced this film, it goes like this: Harrison Ford is the American president; he’s in Russia on a state visit, and on the way back his plane is taken over by a band of ultra-nationalist rebels led by Gary Oldman. President Harrison Ford’s family is on the plane, along with a good chunk of his Cabinet, and the rebels want their separatist general released from prison or they’ll shoot everybody.

What they don’t know is, everybody on the plane already wants to shoot everybody else, because Notre Dame and Michigan are playing football on television.

RYAN: This is arguably the most relatable aspect of the film. Most of us will never know the burden of managing international affairs at the highest level, and while we do worry about taking care of our families, “foil hijackers” comes in far below “manage child’s expectations about becoming a pro soccer player.” Traveling while your team is playing? That’s a thing I’ve lived, and I bet you have, too. I don’t know if it’s the change to routine, the combination of game stress and travel stress, or low air pressure, but watching a game you care about on a plane amplifies the experience. And not in a good way.

HOLLY: It’s really the worst workday imaginable for a Michigan or a Notre Dame fan. Not only are you watching a high-stakes football contest on an airplane – never an ideal scenario – but you’re watching it on tape delay thanks to your job, and your plane is taken over by international terrorists right in the middle of the game! Now you have to avoid hijackers and spoilers?

Today we’ll be sitting in one of our favorite amen corners, watching this all unfurl from the perspective of one of our favorite genres of fan: the Michigan War Dad. Both the film and Ford’s performance present his partisan interest in this game in something of a nebulous light – we will come back to this – but we are prepared to argue that Harrison Ford The President represents the apex of Michigan War Dad form, as a degreed Wolverine who flew helicopters in an actual military conflict.

RYAN: So Harrison Ford The Person would have been a college freshman in 1960 or so. Let’s assume Harrison Ford The President attended college in the early-mid 1970’s. He probably didn’t see any Michigan-ND games; the series stopped in 1943 and didn’t resume until 1978. Though if he was in Vietnam, it’s possible he went to Michigan later. That means he could have been around for the reunion game in ‘78, which Michigan won 28-14, or Notre Dame’s 12-10 win the year after.

HOLLY: He’s not unfamiliar with gridiron agony. But imagine being the president while your team is playing Notre Dame. This is a different beast. This is the actual reason for the 25th amendment. And the list of exacerbating circumstances surrounding this imaginary game is almost fathomless.

We’ve well established that watching teams you care about while traveling can be rough under the best of circumstances, and airplane viewing is always suboptimal. Depending on your emotional relationship with your primary football program, this can occasionally be for the best. If I were president, for example, as a product of the University of Tennessee, I would simply schedule all state functions on fall Saturdays, and check the box scores only at bedtime or under heavy recreational sedation.

But having an emotional investment in the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry transforms this movie’s genre from action to body horror. How can any invested party be reasonably expected to shoot their way through a group of armed hijackers to rescue hostages while watching these specific teams trade punts for at least two and a half quarters? In the name of all the gods that are and ever were, imagine navigating any sort of international security incident, looking up, and seeing that Shea Patterson is about to throw a football.

RYAN: In 2018, Patterson threw 30 passes against Notre Dame and Michigan lost. The following year, Patterson threw just 12 passes against the Fighting Irish and Michigan won. In the ideal Michigan offense, Shea Patterson throws 0.0783 passes and the Wolverines triumph 1776-0.

HOLLY: And the thing is, the pain doesn’t stop with you – although that can be a powerful weapon, properly channeled. If we know Michigan fans, and hooboy do we ever know Michigan fans, the week leading up to this game has already taken its toll on the President’s family and colleagues. A surly band of Russian ultra-nationalists versus a plane full of people already in a bad mood because they work for a man who’s being forced to watch the Wolverines on tape delay? Did the terrorists ever stand a chance?

To find out, let’s go to the film. The movie is two hours and four minutes long, so for those of you experiencing residual stress at the notion of even contemplating this, please know it’ll be over faster than your typical noon game can play three quarters. Roger Ebert, himself a Big Ten grad, gave this movie 2 ½ stars. He went to Illinois, so we will forgive him his lack of football concern. “I saw a movie the other day about a woman in Paris who lost her cat,” Ebert wrote in his review, “and know what? It was more exciting than this.” To him, I’m sure it was. Sleep the sleep of the untroubled, sweet Illini.

Even more than two decades after its release, Air Force One asks a lot of the informed viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief. We are expected to buy into a president that employs a functioning staff, speaks multiple languages, and can operate a firearm. There is even a woman vice president! Also, the President is a Michigan grad, but apart from a football context, does not mention this fact at all. This is by far the most unrealistic part of the movie.

It also brings us to the central meta-mystery of the film: Whose side is the President really on? I am speaking, of course, in terms of the football game. Our Catholic cousins over at One Foot Down dug into this from the Domer perspective a couple years ago, and concluded via careful research that this President is not of Fighting Irish extraction, but this is far from clear to the casual viewer. To unpack this mystery, we’ll need to return first to the plot point of tape delay.

The chief obstacle to understanding the rooting allegiance of Harrison Ford The President is the face of Harrison Ford The Person. Air Force One falls within Ford’s famed My Wife My Family Canon; as such, while the film’s script requires a great deal of him physically, he is not called upon to do much more vocally than growl, hiss, or holler. When a plucky staffer calls, “14-13 Michigan, all right!” in his general direction shortly after boarding the movie’s titular aircraft, Ford’s resulting rictus leaves us to wonder: Is this a happy snarl, or a sad snarl?

Several additional red herrings are placed throughout the film to keep football fans guessing. The very name of Harrison Ford, for example, evokes a quarterback not of a storied public institution of learning, but of Georgia, or Vanderbilt. And when the President’s daughter protests an instance of pass interference in the game, her father retorts, “Only if they get caught.”

RYAN: Go Gators/Go Seminoles/It’s All About The U.

HOLLY: This movie predates Jane Coaston’s All-PI offense and thus excuses any ignorance thereof, but it’s a display of disregard for the rules of sport that would be anathema to your regulation-issue Michigan Man. Less offensive, but still distressing to Ann Arboreal tastes, are the President’s cover-zero style of defense aboard the aircraft, to say nothing of his blistering offensive attack that relies solely on trick plays and deception.

There are even moments in the movie where one is reminded that partisans of Michigan and Notre Dame are not so different as they would like to pretend. Just before the 44-minute mark, a hijacker switches off the television showing the game. There’s still an hour and 20 minutes to go in the film, and the President spends most of that time killing people. This is the expected reaction of a Wolverine denied its quarry, to be sure, but also, have you met the vast majority of Catholic history?

But while there may not be an ocean between the Wolverine and Fighting Irish fandom, nor are they entirely alike in dignity. At the precise moment the President first spots fighter jets hovering just off the wings of Air Force One, readying themselves to shoot the plane down over an unpopulated area rather than negotiate with hostile forces, Michigan’s quarterback can also be seen dropping back to pass – and absolutely zero emotion is visible on Ford’s face. The true cinephile has seen enough weeping saint statues in a lifetime to understand: This is no child of the Golden Dome.

RYAN: Wait, President Harrison Ford = President Ford = Gerald Ford, the original Michigan Football President? Is this whole movie an attempt to rehabilitate Gerald Ford’s image by showing you what a hard-punchin’ leader he could have been if only his would-be assassins had faced him on a plane? Am I not getting enough sleep?

HOLLY: The second most prominent clue as to Harrison Ford The President’s true football fealty occurs when a staffer concocts a scheme to contact Glenn Close The Vice President and earthbound members of the Cabinet, via fax machine. Ford offers the staffer the position of Postmaster General if the plan works, a power vested* in only the most preeminent Wolverine alumni.

But nowhere are Ford’s Michigan bona fides more evident than in a cutaway to the White House Situation Room, where an argument is taking place over whether the Vice President or Secretary of Defense has ranking authority. These men and women flail about to such a degree as to betray their primary weakness: They’re not used to operating without the pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution that the President, a clear and obvious Michigan Man, carries on his person at all times. This is what’s known, in legal circles, as a “constitutional crisis.”

RYAN: To be clear, Harrison Ford The President knows every word of the Constitution by heart. It’s just useful to slap the pocket copy on the table as a rhetorical flourish.

HOLLY: You know what else is almost left to the imagination, upon multiple viewings? Not only is the President’s alma mater made mysterious through vague script choices and inscrutable performance, it’s not entirely clear that the staffer yelling “14-13!” is revealing the final score. It took a couple extra viewings for that to sink in, and it tells me one thing: College football message boards didn’t have nearly enough power in the mid-90s. MGoBlog and ND Nation would never have allowed this kind of information to remain open to interpretation by the likes of us.

RYAN: Of note: No game in this series has ever ended 14-13. The movie came out five years or so after a 17-17 tie in this game, and the part about it being close is accurate; eight of the 11 games played from ‘82 to ‘94 were decided by less than a touchdown. In summary, this is not history, it’s historical fiction. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse for Michigan men and women.

HOLLY: Let’s put it another way for our brothers and sisters in maize and blue. What is worse: the hypothetical knowledge that at any moment, the fighter pilot flying just off your wing may loose a Sidewinder missile towards your aircraft, or the actual knowledge that Mike DeBord is rejoining your football program? Whoever decided to outlaw smoking on airplanes never had to play in the Big Ten. (Of note: In the film, the fighter pilot tasked to fire on Air Force One says “God, I hope this works,” out loud, as he hits the trigger button. Clearly some form of Indiana grad.)

Even once the hijackers have been subdued and the remaining hostages rescued and Air Force One safely scuttled (due in no small part to Harrison Ford The President ably piloting an aircraft, a plot point which should give followers of Harrison Ford The Person at least a wry chuckle), it’s hard to unsee the ambient antagonisms that still confront his Wolverine sensibilities: The fighter planes surrounding his military transport aircraft look just enough like a four verts formation to set the teeth on edge, no? And to think, there’s still the Ohio State game left to play.

*Readers with better civics educations will recall President Gerald Ford’s executive order to this effect; the rest of you may look up the Pure Michigan-Postmaster Trust Act of 1976.