The Storming of the Bastille, while heroic, is no match for Con Air, the late 1990s Nicolas Cage flick that also takes place on July 14 and involves the freeing of prisoners.
We, as denizens of a democracy, may like to look back into history and its defining events and to seek meaning in moments when we see ourselves reflected. Americans have long considered Bastille Day as one such revelatory event — the metaphorical fecundity of the Bastille (a symbol of French royal authority) meeting its downfall in 1789, the very year an independent America was having her bat-mitzvah.
But as we cherish the symbols of old, we should also look for new motifs. There may be no better place to look than late-1990s Jerry Bruckheimer films, full of post-Cold War America at its most cocksure. It's our vulnerabilities in this era, a quieter span of years, that we see our constituent fears on display. Politically and spiritually, films like Con Air remain relevant.
Con Air is the story of Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), a former Army Ranger, who gets sentenced to jail for involuntary manslaughter. In the film's opening scenes, moments after he finds out his wife (Monica Potter) is pregnant, they are attacked by a gang of drunken men outside a bar and Poe kills a man just to watch him die while defending his wife.
In a prescient nod to the rise of "Stand Your Ground" laws, Poe is convicted on the grounds that his Ranger training made him capable of acting with lethal force. Like a boss, Poe serves his time until he makes parole on July 14, which is Bastille Day (yes), but also his daughter's birthday and the day Poe will meet his daughter for the very first time.
Set to fly home to Alabama, Poe, with the hokiest of drawls, joins a plane full of convicts when the plane is hijacked by hilarious evil genius Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich). Innocent guards are in danger. Dangerous men may escape and wreak havoc. A stuffed bunny is imperiled.
Does Poe tend to his ailing diabetic cellmate Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson) and lay low so that he may deliver the stuffed bunny he got for his daughter's birthday? Or does Poe fight back?
It's a trick question: Poe does both, furtively sabotaging the escape mission while pretending to play along. (Warning: graphic scene ahead)
It's the swan song of American nuance before the you're-with-us-or-against-us credo was codified.
But there's more to it than its righteous violence. In his review of Con Air, Roger Ebert wrote:
On the ground, we meet a good-guy U.S. marshal (John Cusack), and a mad dog DEA agent (Colm Meany) whose solution to the problem is to blow the commandeered plane out of the air.
Ebert may be selling them short. Within the philosophical system of Con Air, there is not just simply good-guy and mad dog, but Abraham (Cusack) and the God of the Old Testament (Meany) arguing over the sanctity of one good life amid all the ambient evil.
This is a big cast, but easy to keep straight, because everyone is typecast and never does anything out of character."
This may be true. But the convicts on the plane are guilty of crimes that still shake our national character some 17 years later. Malkovich delivers a charismatic performance as a criminal mastermind, not only because he is clever, but because he too abhors the rapist aboard (Danny Trejo) even as he looks in awe upon the serial killer (Steve Buscemi), who, like many underserved criminals, is seemingly stricken with a mental illness. He understands the context that created the black militant (Ving Rhames), even as he eyes him warily.
In the end, the day is saved by Poe, a man who defended the system as a Ranger, was wronged by the system, and ultimately defended it again anyway. Half of Vegas is destroyed along the way. The faith of the good-guy U.S. Marshal wins out over the mad dog DEA agent, whose cherished Corvette gets flung into the ether by the convict plane. Poe's daughter gets her bunny.
Larkin: You're a free man, Poe. What are you doing?
Poe: I can't trade a man's life for my own, Larkin. That's all.
Happy Con Air Day, hummingbirds.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.