The film stars Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman, as well as Glenn Close, Xander Berkeley, William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell and Paul Guilfoyle. A box office success with generally positive critical reviews, the film was one of the most popular action films of the 1990s.
An American and Russian Joint Military Operation results with Special Forces capturing General Ivan Radek (Jürgen Prochnow), the dictator of Kazakhstan. Three weeks later, a diplomatic dinner is held in Moscow in Russia by Russian President Petrov (Alan Woolf) to celebrate the capture of the Kazakh dictator, at which President of the United States James Marshall (Harrison Ford) expresses his remorse that action had not been taken sooner to prevent the suffering caused by Radek, whose regime took the lives of 200,000 people. He also vows that his administration will take a firmer stance against despotism and that they will never negotiate with terrorists.
President Marshall, along with his wife Grace (Wendy Crewson), daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews), and several of his Cabinet and advisors, board Air Force One to return to the United States. In addition, a number of members of the press corps have been invited aboard. A batch of Radek loyalists, led by Egor Korshunov (Gary Oldman), posing as a news crew, are cleared to fly on Air Force One. After takeoff, Secret Service agent Gibbs (Xander Berkeley), who is secretly a mole, enables Korshunov and the loyalists to acquire weapons and begin storming the plane, killing many people before taking everyone else hostage. Secret Service agents race a reluctant Marshall down to an escape pod in the cargo hold, where he seemingly escapes as the pod is ejected. The terrorists breach the cockpit and prevent the plane from making an emergency landing at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Several F-15s escort Air Force One as the terrorists have it piloted towards Radek-loyal airspace.
In Washington, D.C., Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close), arrives at the White House, taking command of the situation with U.S. Defense Secretary Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell) and other officials. Korshunov contacts Bennett and demands Radek's release, threatening to execute a hostage every half hour. Marshall, who has remained hidden in the cargo hold instead of using the pod, manages to kill one of Korshunov's men and acquire a weapon. Korshunov executes National Security Advisor Jack Doherty (Tom Everett) and secures Grace and Alice separately from the other hostages and takes them up to the cockpit. Marshall kills another hijacker, then uses a satellite phone to make contact with Bennett. Korshunov, believing that a Secret Service Agent is in the cargo hold, executes Deputy Press Secretary Melanie Mitchell (Donna Bullock).
Marshall dumps some of the plane's fuel reserve in an attempt to force a landing. Instead, Korshunov demands a mid-air refueling. Marshall gains access to the conference room where the hostages are being held and he, along with his military advisors, including Major Caldwell (William H. Macy) and Chief of Staff Lloyd Shepherd (Paul Guilfoyle) devise a plan to trick the hijackers to take Air Force One to a lower altitude for the refueling, allowing the hostages to parachute safely off the plane. Gibbs, pretending to be on their side, joins them. As a KC-10 tanker docks with Air Force One, Marshall and the advisors escort the hostages to the cargo hold, where most parachute away; Korshunov discovers the deception and forces the plane away, causing the fuel to ignite, destroying the tanker. Marshall, Caldwell, Shepard and Gibbs remain on board Air Force One.
The group are taken by the hijackers up to the cockpit where Marshall reunites with his family. Korshunov tells him to contact Petrov and arrange for Radek's release. Marshall surrenders himself to Korshunov to save Alice. While Korushunov and his men celebrate the news of Radek's release, Marshall breaks free and kills the last two of Korshunov's men. Korshunov drags Grace down to the cargo hold, where he throws the remaining parachutes overboard. Grace briefly distracts him, allowing Marshall to kill him; Marshall then lifts his order, and Radek is subsequently killed when he attempts to escape.
Marshall and Caldwell direct the plane back to friendly airspace, only to be quickly tailed by a second batch of Radek loyalists piloting MiG-29s. Air Force One sustains heavy damage, as the F-15s manage to fight off the MiGs. With heavy damage and low fuel, Air Force One cannot land safely. A standby USAF special operations MC-130 is called to help, sending pararescuemen on tether lines to help rescue the survivors. Marshall's family and Shepherd are transferred first. When there is time for only one more transfer, Gibbs reveals his true intentions and kills Caldwell and the pararescueman. Marshall and Gibbs fight for control of the transfer line, and Marshall manages to grab and detach it at the last minute. Air Force One crashes into the Caspian Sea, killing Gibbs. The MC-130 airmen reel Marshall in where he falls into his family's waiting arms. The MC-130 is subsequently dubbed with the call sign of Air Force One, and flies safely away.
A large part of the crew took a tour of the real Air Force One before filming. They based some of the film's scenes, where the terrorists disguised as journalists survey the plane's layout and begin to take their seats, on the touring experience. The character of Deputy Press Secretary Melanie Mitchell was based largely on their real life tour guide, and the crew felt uncomfortable having to film the character's execution by the terrorists.
For the exterior scenes, the producers rented a Boeing 747-146 aircraft, N703CK from Kalitta Air and repainted it to replicate the iconic Air Force One livery.
Scenes explaining Agent Gibbs' motivation for being the mole were cut from the final script. According to director Wolfgang Petersen, Gibbs was a former CIA agent who lost a lot after the end of the Cold War and thus became angry with the American government and wanted revenge. He knew the terrorists from his CIA days, so they included him in their operation. The scene was considered too long to tell, so it was cut from the film. The director also felt that it was unnecessary to add in the film so it was removed as it was irrelevant to the plot. He felt its something insignificant that the audience doesn't really need to know about.
Gary Oldman did not stay in character between the scenes. The director later said he called the filming experience "Air Force Fun" because of how comic and genial Oldman would be off-screen. He also said that Oldman would suddenly return to the menacing film persona like a shot.
General Radek's palace, seen in the film's opening, was portrayed by two locations in Cleveland, Ohio: the exterior was Severance Hall, and the interior was the Cuyahoga County Courthouse. The Russian prison where Radek was incarcerated was the Ohio State Reformatory, previously seen in The Shawshank Redemption. Ramstein Air Base, Germany was portrayed by Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base, Ohio.
F-15 Eagle aircraft from the 33d Operations Group, 33d Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida were used in the movie.
One of the most popular action films of the 1990s, Air Force One received generally positive reviews from critics, with an overall "fresh" rating of 78% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone awarded the film 3.5/4 stars, describing it as "superior escapism", and concluding, "Air Force One doesn't insult the audience. It is crafted by a film-maker who takes pride in the thrills and sly fun he packs into every frame. Welcome to something rare in a summer of crass commercialism: a class act." Todd McCarthy of Variety described the film as "a preposterously pulpy but quite entertaining suspense meller" that is "spiked by some spectacularly staged and genuinely tense action sequences." He lauded the film's antagonist: "[Gary] Oldman, in his second malevolent lead of the summer, after The Fifth Element, registers strongly as a veteran of the Afghan campaign pushed to desperate lengths to newly ennoble his country."
In a lukewarm review, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 2.5 stars out of 4 and found it flawed and cliché-ridden yet "well-served by the quality of the performances ... Air Force One is a fairly competent recycling of familiar ingredients, given an additional interest because of Harrison Ford's personal appeal." Adam Mars-Jones of The Independent was more critical, calling it "so preposterous that it begins to seem like a science-fiction artifact...the product of a parallel-universe 1990s which somehow by-passed the decades since the 1950s."
The film was a major box office success, earning $172,650,002 (54.9%) domestically and $142,200,000 (45.1%) in other countries. It grossed a total of $315,156,409 worldwide in the box office. It was the year's fifth highest-grossing film worldwide.
President Bill Clinton saw the film twice while in office and gave it good reviews. He noted, however, that certain elements of the film's version of Air Force One, such as the escape pod and the rear parachute ramp, did not reflect features of the actual Air Force One (though since many Air Force One features are highly classified and "need-to-know", these features cannot be completely ruled out). In the audio commentary, Wolfgang Petersen mused that although the real plane did not have those features at the time of the filming, they would probably be added by future governments.
After Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said his favorite role of Ford's was Air Force One because he "stood up for America", Ford reasoned that it was just a film and was doubtful that Trump's presidential bid would be successful.
A Wall Street Journal poll in 2016 named Harrison Ford's James Marshall as the greatest fictional president.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2001: AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated
Randy Newman was initially hired to write the film score; however, Petersen considered his composition to be almost a parody and commissioned Jerry Goldsmith to write and record a more sombre and patriotic score in just twelve days, with assistance from Joel McNeely. After the harrowing experience, Goldsmith vowed never again to take on such a last-minute task.
Newman used some of his material from the rejected score in Toy Story 3.
The music label Varèse Sarabande released a soundtrack album featuring Goldsmith's music. McNeely receives a credit on the back cover for "Additional Music in the Motion Picture", but none of his work is on the CD, although his cues include the material heard when Air Force One is under attack.
The first track of the soundtrack, "The Parachutes", was used by Donald Trump during his campaign for President of the United States in 2016. The song was played in the background at the New York Hilton hotel in Midtown Manhattan prior to Trump's victory speech, following Hillary Clinton's concession.
A novelization of the film was published in June 1997 by author Max Allan Collins. Though the book has the same central plot and outcomes as the film, its main storyline has additional scenes and lines than the film. The book develops characters more than the film and unlike the movie, Gibbs's identity as the traitor is not revealed until the end of the book. It also presents a slightly alternate ending; Air Force One crashes in the Russian countryside, whereas in the film, Air Force One crashes into the Caspian Sea.