Some movie ideas are too good to be true, in the sense that it’s difficult to imagine a fully satisfying story emerging from the idea. The made-for-TV mystery The President’s Plane Is Missing exemplifies this all-too-common circumstance. The title alone, and the premise it delivers, is tantalizing: What, exactly, would happen if Air Force One fell off radar? With today’s 24/7 digital connectivity, the premise wouldn’t work, because the whole world would know what happened almost instantly. In the early ’70s, there was a bit more leeway for stretching this scenario out to feature length, and, indeed, the storyline—extrapolated from a novel by Robert J. Serling—is fairly resourceful. Together with skillful direction by Daryl Duke and the competent work of a cast mostly comprising veteran B-listers, the crafty narrative makes The President’s Plane Is Missing relatively interesting as a far-fetched potboiler. That it ultimately devolves into a standard-issue conspiracy thriller is unsurprising, because, really, that’s one of only a handful of directions the premise could have led. To the filmmakers’ credit, they keep a few decent aces up their collective sleeve, so those who seek out this disposable picture will find the viewing experience pleasant enough.
The film’s main characters are Vice President Kermit Madigan (Buddy Ebsen) and wire-service reporter Mark Jones (Peter Graves). When Air Force One disappears during bad weather near Winslow, Arizona, Madigan gets pulled into a constitutional crisis. He can’t assume the presidency until the death of his boss is confirmed, and yet he’s obligated to provide leadership while the president is missing. Naturally, there’s an international incident brewing, specifically a standoff with China. Hawkish advisor George Oldenburg (Rip Torn) advocates action, while doveish Secretary of State Freeman Sharkey (Raymond Massey) counsels caution. Meanwhile, Mark and his intrepid editor, Gunther Damon (Arthur Kennedy), sense that the available facts don’t tell the whole story, so they push through high-security firewalls to ferret out the truth. The picture’s balance of Oval Office intrigue and field investigation keeps things lively, and the performances are never less than professional. (Ebsen and Torn are the standouts, delivering, respectively, plainspoken integrity and ruthless ambition.) Helping things along is an energetic score by the prolific Gil Melle, featuring a Six Million Dollar Man-style combination of driving bongo beats and militaristic snare patterns.
The President’s Plane Is Missing: FUNKY