April 5, 2018 | by James Greene, Jr.
Believe it or not, the 1973 ABC “Movie of The Week” The President’s Plane Is Missing was a book before it was made-for-television cinema. Robert J. Serling, elder brother of Rod, authored it six years prior, and the tome’s status as a New York Times bestseller guaranteed the property would eventually be adapted for another medium. And so it came to pass, on the idiot box, with award-winning director Daryl Duke taking the reins. The award in question? A Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Drama for a 1971 episode of anthology series The Bold Ones: The Senator (hard to believe they could fit all that on a statuette).
The title of Serling’s work is a bit misleading — the President himself is absent far longer than his aircraft, and that’s where the real meat of this story can be found. One might anticipate a movie like this to be ham-fisted with its music in order to drive home the drama. As it happens, Duke’s film is light on score. This seems a conscious decision, due to the fact The President’s Plane stocks numerous actors recognizable by voice alone. Peter Graves, a man so sonorous he was practically a walking ASMR video, aurally hypnotizes as he investigates our nation’s developing crisis.
Meanwhile, a so-young-you-can’t-even-recognize-him Rip Torn drips syrupy smarm by the bucket as National Security Advisor George Oldenburg. Oldenburg spends most of his time advising beleaguered Vice President Kermit Madigan, played in a distressed (and possibly inebriated) honk by Buddy Ebsen. In Madigan’s other ear is Raymond Massey’s formidable Secretary of State (who wants to toss Torn’s character into the Potomac). Like a beautifully strange symphony, these ballyhooed throats come together to underscore the severity of the situation, marking where each heart lays in relation to solving the quandary.
Even John Amos, an actor who could make the white pages sound riveting, gets a cameo as a Marine Corporal. Where was Orson Welles during the production of The President’s Plane Is Missing? He was just beginning to work beneath his reputation at this point and would have been a welcome addition as the thundering heart of the plane.
What little music there is in The President’s Plane — a brassy but sparse jog, vaguely conveying tension through extended notes and rhythmic percussion — was composed by noted jazzbo Gil Mellé. Mellé also contributed sound to classics such as The Andromeda Strain, You’ll Like My Mother, The Savage is Loose, Blood Beach, and Killdozer!. He was a great talent; what Gil authored for The Andromeda Strain is perfectly haunting, and his 1956 LP Patterns in Jazz is deft and worthy. Alas, what he gave to The President’s Plane is underwhelming and dated. In fairness, I cannot remember a single lick of the music from Air Force One. Maybe it’s difficult to compose for cinema that revolves around government sanctioned Boeings.
Today The President’s Plane Is Missing may be better remembered as the inspiration for a throwaway line on The Simpsons; one of the many films that program’s resident has-been actor Troy McClure starred in was called The President’s Neck is Missing. Robert J. Serling’s book was big enough in its day to get a sequel, however, in 1985’s Air Force One is Haunted. In that volume, the ghost of Franklin Roosevelt takes up residence in the aircraft to give advice on successful governing and to spin forgotten Depression era yarns. Serling branched out to the nautical in 1990 with Something’s Alive on The Titanic. Once again, a spectral entity makes its presence known in/around the famed vessel, warding off greedy treasure hunters.
If only Peter Graves were still alive to investigate that.
Watch The President's Plane Is Missing trailer