- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2001

National Geographic Television next week invites viewers aboard the "flying White House," that monolith of the air known as Air Force One. But the special, to air at 8 p.m. Wednesday on PBS, proves to be as sterile as the cavernous hangar at Andrews Air Force Base that serves as home for the twin planes that interchangeably carry the name.
Certainly, the red-white-and-blue-bedecked 747s deserve a protracted look. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first president to fly in office — to meet British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Casablanca in 1943 — the presidential crafts have played roles small and large in our nation's history. From Lyndon B. Johnson's taking of the presidential oath within Air Force One's cabin after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 to Ronald Reagan's trip to Germany in 1987 to call for the end of the Cold War, the plane has propelled the nation through its brightest and darkest hours.
(The term "Air Force One" actually applies to any aircraft on which the president is aboard. Through the years, that has come to mean a succession of craft.)
The security measures such important missions demand, which border on the fanatical, no doubt will captivate anyone with a modicum of interest in the topic of terrorism.
The majority of the interviews shown, however, from those with plane staffers to several with former presidents, are far too bland to hammer home the plane's emotional connection to American democracy.
The presidents, some of whom are interviewed on the plane, appear like schoolchildren in their navy-blue Air Force One jumpsuits, giddy at the power at their disposal. It's but one of the special's many potent visuals.
The special's creative force, Peter Schnall, has pasted together a slick montage of images meant to prick our patriotic spirits. It works. The sight of the gleaming jet streaking through the skies evokes a visceral sense of awe, although the opulence onboard might rankle a few citizens over how tax dollars are spent.
Mr. Schnall is granted delicious access to the planes' interiors and crew, but the comments his crew generates waver from the banal to the bland. The rah-rah soundtrack isn't surprising because it's unlikely that current or past members of the Air Force One flight team would say a discouraging word about the monumental craft or its precious cargo. But rare is the moment when truly touching memories are indulged.
One exception is hearing Jimmy Carter reminisce about flying on Air Force One in 1981, at then-President Reagan's bequest, to retrieve the American hostages held by Iran. With a faraway look, the former president paints the scene of how each hostage bearhugged him after climbing aboard the craft and back into freedom.
Another haunting moment concerns Jack Valenti, president and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Association of America, who once served as Mr. Johnson's aide. A black-and-white image of Mr. Valenti's stricken face as he watches Mr. Johnson take the oath of office aboard Air Force One mirrors the horror of the nation after the assassination.
Some of the details of "Air Force One" no doubt will burnish the viewers' appreciation for the subject matter. The aircraft brim with weaponry and enough shielding to protect them from a nuclear blast detonated below. The president's bulletproof limousine can be stored within the planes' capacious hulls, ready to burst forward once the plane is safely on the ground.
An Air Force One jet is more than a means of safe, speedy transportation for the leader of the free world, though. It's a potent political tool, an instrument presidents have wielded for decades to wrangle votes from stubborn members of Congress and confidences from world dignitaries. Again, a vivid anecdote from a senator or two whose views were tenderized by its regal trappings might have lent the special some much-needed heft.
Tim Kerwin, who served as an Air Force One flight attendant during three administrations, beams when discussing his tenure, pointing to a series of snapshots of himself and various presidents. Yet he also fails to share any of the quiet moments that would have humanized his fortunate position.
Mr. Schnall, a six-time Emmy winner, has no trouble orchestrating file footage of Air Force One's momentous past. He also doesn't bludgeon the viewer with history, preferring to segue from past to present without creating a visual version of whiplash.
Ultimately, "Air Force One" will satiate those bewitched by the world of flight or the peculiar powers inherent in the Oval Office or with a gimlet eye toward the president's most prestigious form of transport.
Perhaps if the hourlong special were slashed in half or the sources were prodded for finer details, the special might soar as majestically as its subject matter.

* * 1/2

WHAT: "Air Force One"

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: PBS (WETA, Channel 26)


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