Monday, January 12, 2015

Motivations: make them clear, make them early

I pulled out my bluray AIR FORCE ONE this weekend and watched the film for the first time in what has to be at least ten or fifteen years. You might be asking, "Bitter, why on earth would you own THAT film on blu?" It's a fair question. Even I have considered it a so-so film.  It's about as good as any "DIE HARD on the President's Plane" could ever hope to be. And next to OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and WHITE HOUSE DOWN, it really looks like a masterpiece.

(As to why I own it: It was part of a two-pack with one of my favorite movies, IN THE LINE OF FIRE. Both movies together for $4.99. I'd have paid that much just for IN THE LINE OF FIRE, so it basically was a freebie.)

I decided to watch with director Wolfgang Peterson's commentary on to see if he addressed something that's been under my skin since my first viewing - the really shitty motivations of the Secret Service turncoat played by Xander Berkeley. For those who haven't seen the film, it involves terrorists disguised as a media crew taking over the President's plane. Obviously, a major plot question the screenwriter was faced with was "How does this crew actually take over the plane?" It's hard enough to hijack a commercial jet. How the hell do you mastermind a takeover of the aircraft of the most powerful man in the world, which has to be one of the most secured vessels on the planet?

The film opts for probably the most obvious (but most plausible) avenue - one of the Secret Service agents is a collaborator with the terrorists. He takes out three of his fellow agents, which clears the way for the terrorists to get to the plane's armory. I can't blame the film for wanting to get to the fireworks factory as soon as possible, because there are indeed some wonderfully tense moments. For any of its flaws, you have to love a film where Gary Oldman gets to chew the scenery as a bad guy, and this was when Harrison Ford still could play an intense ass-kicker in his sleep. (I teed up the next joke for you, so go for it.)

But the film never even attempts to give any motivation for WHY Berkeley's character would be working with these Russian terrorists in their plot to hold the President hostage, a plot that necessarily requires the deaths of several, if not ALL of the people he's been working alongside for many years.

It doesn't help that Berkeley's performance is pretty terrible. I've seen the guy do good work in other projects, so maybe he was directed this way, but it amounts to him alternating between bland expressions (when other characters are watching) and instant evil sneers (the instant that character turns their backs.) It's about the same level of directing as Homer Simpson assuring people that the audience will understand that the dog in his movie is evil so long as you do a close-up of his eyes shifting back and forth.

On the commentary, Peterson says that they had "a line" explaining his motivation, which would have been delivered around the time he reveals himself to the President and kills two other men trying to get the President off the plane. The director claims that there were editing issues, and that it didn't seem to fit, so they cut it.

Can you see the problem here? Peterson was waiting until the climax to explain the motivations of this crucial character. To me, that's insanity. The big question hanging over the film is "Why is this guy betraying king and country?" It becomes a suspension of disbelief issue after a certain point, particularly when the film uses the other character's ignorance of this fact to generate suspense. Had Oldman's character killed the agent at the start of the takeover, we might have been able to handwave the betrayal as something like "he was bought off." The longer he's actively participating - especially when the time comes that it'd be easier for him to shut up and just escape with the others - the more we crave an explanation for this guy's actions.

My whole point in bringing this up is less to rant about AIR FORCE ONE specifically, and more to make a general point about character motivations. Don't skimp on motivations, particularly when the entire film hinges on why a particular character takes a significant action. That's not a crack to be papered over in the climax of the film (unless the mystery of that motivation is a significant driver of plot action in the film, and this doesn't really count.) That's a question you take off the table early on so that the audience can enjoy the ride.

And really, if your entire explanation for a motive hinges on "a line," there's probably some deeper issues of shitty writing that need to be fixed too.


  1. All good points, but did Petersen actually write AF1? Not sure why you're blaming him for withholding the motivational explanation to the climax, doesn't the writer carry some of the can for that? Unless the yak-track says Petersen chose to do that, in which case ignore my gibberings...

    1. If you read reviews, there is a tendency for the director to get lavished with praise, and then when something comes up the reviewer didn't like, they almost always blame the stupid script by the idiot screenwriter. The truth is that on a studio film like that, the director tends to have WAY more culpability than the writer who is almost always forced to write to the director's whims even if they object. (There's also usually plenty you can blame the studio for, but the director will always have more power than the writer.)

      And on the commentary, Peterson doesn't shy away from blame. Not only does he frequently use "we," but he does admit SOME explanation was in the script and it was cut when it didn't flow. With everything I know about how these kinds of movies are made, it would be a dick move on my part to single out the writer when in all likelihood, but that point he was just executing mandates from Peterson and/or the studio.

  2. First of all, I try to avoid the "double feature" DVd/Blu-Ray combos whenevcer I can. I actually countmyself lucky, if not blessed that I got In The Line Of Fire *by itself* on DVD ages ago.

    Anyway, I'm glad you brought this up. Because it is always a yawner for me when I see a character like this. It gets worse when editing for time makes motives unclear. It's not like Cliffhanger, where motivations are clear from the start (and even uses casting as a diversion of who the "turncoat" is, no less) but something got me curious. Was this 'turncoat' and last minute explanation the director's idea, or Andrew Marlowe's? Was it something in the early drafts or put in near the shooting script? Will we ever know?