William Shatner negotiates with terrorists in The Kidnapping Of The President

William Shatner negotiates with terrorists in The Kidnapping Of The President

In Films That Time Forgot, The A.V. Club digs up trashy, obscure movies and looks for memorable moments in films that few people remember.

Director: George Mendeluk

Tagline: “Unthinkable. Improbable. Incredible… but it could happen tomorrow!”

Choice IMDB keywords: Secret Service, strapped to a bomb, booby trap, bribery, truck

Plot: When Leningrad-trained international terrorist Miguel Fernandes gets into trouble with guerrillas in a South American jungle, he kills one of the rich American wannabe-revolutionaries who are drawn to his cause, because she “knows too much.” Then Fernandes connects with his victim’s like-minded sister Cindy Girling—after lying to her about what happened on his last mission—to enact his boldest plan yet. He and Girling are going to kidnap President Hal Holbrook, and hold him for a ransom of $100 million in diamonds, earmarked to fund their cells around the world. More importantly, Fernandes and Girling are taking this “irrevocable step” in hopes that it’ll shake the United States to its core. “America needs to learn humility,” Girling says.

Meanwhile, the Holbrook administration is preparing for a trip to Toronto to promote the president’s alternative-energy policies, and aren’t too worried about the trip, because “Toronto’s a piece of cake.” Enter William Shatner, head of the Secret Service, who warns, “That’s what they said about Dallas.” He gives detailed briefings about everything that could go wrong on this visit, to a staff that yawns through his dire, halting predictions. 

But they should’ve taken their boss more seriously, because Fernandes’ kidnapping scheme works—not because it’s foolproof, but because a preponderance of slackers and snafus assure that everything keeps breaking the bad guys’ way. Fernandes and Girling get their explosives-loaded armored car past the barricades surrounding the president by whining to a guard. Fernandes then gets close to the president by saying he’s with “the Mexican press.” And Fernandes is able to handcuff himself to Holbrook and threaten to blow up an entire Toronto block in part because Shatner and the Canadian authorities can’t hear each other.

Adding to the complications for Shatner: CIA director Gary Reineke, who’s angling for more power, is covertly trying to seize control of the operation, intending to find Girling (who escaped as soon as the kidnapping occurred) and free Holbrook, who’s locked inside the booby-trapped truck while Fernandes negotiates with Shatner in a nearby office building. Also, Vice President Van Johnson, whom Holbrook recently asked to resign due to a potential bribery scandal, is unsure whether he’ll vote to authorize the president’s ransom, or consider this an opportunity for a reputation-restoring promotion.

As it turns out, Johnson proves he’s a strong leader. Holbrook gets in touch with Shatner (via a two-way radio that authorities are able to sneak onto the truck), and hisses, “Contact the Secretary Of State and tell him not to pay one thin dime to any terrorist… especially not this son of a bitch!” But Johnson defies the order and casts the deciding vote to give Shatner the diamonds, as part of a larger rescue operation. It’s Reineke who botches everything, by grabbing Girling on the street, at which point she triggers the countdown clock on the truck’s explosives, giving Shatner three hours to save Holbrook.

In fairness to Reineke, Shatner isn’t exactly super-slick or cool-headed. He provokes Fernandes by snapping, “You’re gonna get your ransom money! But you fuck me around and I’ll rip your heart out!” And then he informs Girling that Fernandes killed her sister, prompting her to shoot the terrorist dead before he can pass along instructions for defusing the bomb. So Shatner has to try cutting into the truck through its only non-wired area: the front. And he has to remove the engine and related parts without jiggling the vehicle too much, which will set off the explosives.

The Kidnapping Of The President ends with a beat-the-clock situation, as Shatner burrows in under the hood, racing to cut Holbrook loose before the timer hits midnight. At the stroke of 12, the truck does explode… but then the movie shows Shatner and Holbrook standing off to the side, watching the vehicle burn, both safe at last. (As with Argo, the Canadian contribution to this daring extraction is underplayed.)

Key scenes: It’s a tale of two spouses, as the first lady frets over Holbrook’s plan to ride around Toronto in an open vehicle, while elsewhere in D.C., Johnson’s wife (Ava Gardner) badgers him Lady Macbeth-style to assert himself more, even going so far as to suggest that the kidnapping crisis is exactly what he needs to save his career.

Meanwhile, Fernandes and Girling are dealing with their own crazy associate: Maury Chaykin, an unhinged explosives specialist who also tends to go off whenever he’s jiggled.

And extending the “people are just nuts” theme, after Holbrook is locked in the armored car, Shatner has to handle a mentally ill homeless person who walks across the icy plaza toward the truck, forcing Shatner to pursue in his usual mode: extreme slowness.

Can easily be distinguished by: Its Shatner-iffic qualities. It isn’t just that Shatner issues warnings and gives orders in his telltale stop-start cadence; he also handles his stand-offs with Fernandes in much the same way, by sort of awkwardly staring at his nemesis and waiting for something to happen.

Sign that it was made in 1980: The computer modeling law enforcement uses to map out the crime scene is… primitive:

Timeless message: Don’t negotiate with terrorists! But also: Negotiate with terrorists!

Memorable quotes: In casual conversation with Girling, Fernandes describes one of their comrades: “He’s just like you or me: a man dedicated to the destruction of capitalist tyranny.” 

Available on DVD from Mill Creek.

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