Friday, January 20, 2012

The Films of 1982: Firefox



Tense, cerebral, and confident in a kind of glacial, calculating fashion, director Clint Eastwood's Cold War techno-thriller Firefox was one of the unique offerings of the great summer of 1982. 

A literate and respectable adaptation of Craig Thomas's 1978 novel of the same name, Firefox took on the  Soviet Union -- the "Evil Empire" of President Reagan's famous conjuration -- and also imagined some chilling, futuristic developments in the dangerous international game of technological and ideological brinkmanship.

Although today Firefox seems a bit drawn out at two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes, and even a little emotionally flat in some respects, I believe Eastwood's intelligent decision to eschew traditional movie sentimentality and mock heroics actually augments the film's artistic success, and notably strengthens its case for American-style freedom and democracy.

Although Firefox concerns an American pilot going undercover in Moscow to steal a high-tech warplane, in terms of substance, much of the narrative involves Eastwood's pilot, Gant, interacting with  Soviet rebels; rebels who -- without flinching, and noticeably without narcissism -- give up their lives for a cause greater than personal success, wealth or gain. 

Again and again, these courageous dissidents do what is necessary, what is hard, and what is truly heroic (but not selfish...) to bring freedom not just to their country, but peace to the world at large.   The depiction of the Soviet Union in Firefox may or may not be entirely accurate -- Gant and his comrades are asked for their papers so often you'd swear you're in a World War II propaganda film -- but Eastwood's (and, incidentally, President Reagan's...) case is forged masterfully.  Deny a people their freedom, their individual liberty long enough, and, eventually, you'll be consigned to the ash heap of history.  Your "control" won't be a match for their dedication.

Unlike the James Bond films, which sometimes positioned SPECTRE or some other criminal organization as the real force of terror in the world while the U.S. and U.S.S.R were merely competitors, Firefox rather decidedly chooses sides in the Cold War struggle, recognizing that one nation embraces personal freedom while the other squelches it.  Although this may sound too black-and-white for some viewers, Eastwood has focused so intently and so masterfully on details of technology and espionage, -- and so masterfully cut-out all dramatic histrionics -- that the film often plays as quasi-documentary. 

In the film's final sequence, replete with masterful effects from John Dykstra, Firefox literally and metaphorically takes flight...and proves utterly rousing.

"If the Soviets can mass produce it, it will change the structure of our world..."

A former pilot and head of a U.S. military "aggressor" squad, Mitchell Gant (Eastwood) is recruited by American intelligence officials to go undercover in Moscow and steal a newly designed, experimental warplane, Firefox. 

The matter is one of national security because the Soviet craft can travel faster than Mach 5, and is virtually invisible to radar.  Perhaps more dramatically, the plane is controlled by "brain emissions" and "thought impulses" through helmet sensors, meaning that pilot response time in battle is greatly reduced.  "The greatest warplane ever built," Firefox could change the worldwide balance of power.

Though Gant is an outstanding pilot, he has precious little experience in the world of espionage, and worse, he's still haunted by a traumatic experience in the Vietnam War, during which he saw a young Vietnamese girl firebombed by American planes.  In moments along and in quiet, Gant often experiences seizures, reliving the troubling memories.

Gant travels to Moscow, masquerading as a business-man, but his cover is soon blown,  Helpful dissidents soon come to his aid, arranging again and again his safe passage, often at the expense of their lives.  When Gant finally reaches Firefox's hanger, the scientists who developed the plane also sacrifice themselves to give him cover, for escape and Gant takes off in the technological Goliath.

Unfortunately for Gant, there is a second Firefox ready to launch, and it soon takes to the skies in pursuit...,

"This is very important:  You must think in Russian."

What I admire most about Firefox is its streamlined, no-nonsense nature.  There's no ameliorating romance here, no juvenile comedic relief, and no pandering to the audience in terms of making the action easy or simple. 

This is a complicated film, like an old Mission: Impossible episode in some respects, and the film encourages engagement and attention in a way that few thrillers today manage.  We understand now that Eastwood is a great director, but that fact is also plain here.  He stages a number of elaborate sequences (including one in a Moscow subway station) with tremendous aplomb and visual clarity.  This is a far cry from last week's 1982 feature, Megaforce, which couldn't be bothered to lay out for viewers the spatial, geographical details of battle.

Even better than the film's visual distinction, it's clear that Firefox also has something important on its mind.  The film's overriding leitmotif is stated in the line of dialogue I excerpted above in the section break.  "You must think in Russian." 

On a literal level, of course, this admonition applies to Gant's mastery of Firefox's control systems.  It is a plane controlled by thought, but it was made in Russia, so Gant must phrase his mental commands in Russian.  That alone would be challenge for any pilot.

But on a metaphorical level, Eastwood's character is forced, while in the Iron Curtain, to think like a Russian in terms of what it means to live in a totalitarian regime.  He doesn't understand this distinction at first.  He can't think in Russian, because he's from an entirely different culture, a "free man."   At least twice in the film, Gant seeks to understand why the dissidents are so willing to buck the system, to fight City Hall when the end game is only death.  "What is it with you Jews, anyway?" he asks, rather insensitively.  "Don't you get tired of fighting City Hall?"

Later, when Gant asks a dissident what will happen to him, the rebel replies "It doesn't matter," and Gant takes the remark like a slap across the face.  Of course his life matters.  Every life matters.  But for the dissident, what remains of import here is doing something positive for the country, for his people....in the cause of freedom. 

Some audiences may see this whole subplot as propagandistic or nationalistic, but remember the context: this film was produced at the height of the Cold War, after the Soviet Union had advanced into Afghanistan.  The film reflects that worrisome time, and more so, reflects the American perspective of that conflict.   There's no moral equivocation or relativism in Firefox, only a journey in which a hero is exposed, on his journey, to what it means to live without freedom.  He learns to "think like a Russian," to see life in a place where liberty is absent.  The film picks sides, and it's hard to disagree with Firefox's conclusion.  Freedom is universally the superior paradigm.

Many audiences of today's vintage may find Gant's tragic flaw -- his PTSD seizures -- woefully cliched.  We've seen this particular idea repeated so many times in 2011 that it is trite, and even a little silly.  And yet, in context of the picture, I'd again suggest that it works just fine.  The game here is to make a realistic thriller about a flawed man fighting for his country.  The PTSD takes the edge of invincibility off the familiar Eastwood persona, and makes him more dimensional.  Again, you must contrast Firefox's approach with the likes of something like Moonraker (1979), an espionage/spy film that leaves reality behind (not there's anything wrong, intrinsically with that approach). 

Here, reality comes first and foremost, and people are portrayed as innate courageous...but also innately flawed.  There's a great moment late in the film when Gant brutally takes down a Soviet pilot.  He ambushes him, but then stops, mid-beating, and reveals his humanity.  "Hell," he says, "you didn't do anything."   Mercy is a human trait, and one that many screen heroes of today, in their darkness and angst, eschew.

Of course, that good deed is punished when the beaten pilot -- angry over his treatment -- pilots the second Firefox in pursuit of Gant.  But still, the point of Gant's humanity is made very well.

The last forty-five minutes or so of Firefox involve Gant in the cockpit, in the sky, attempting to fake out, evade, and survive dedicated Soviet pursuit.  It's quite a strong third act, and it features some absolutely exhilarating first-person flight footage.  The special effects by Dykstra (involving miniatures) are not as dated as I thought they were before I re-screened the film, and in fact, very impressive.  The design of Firefox, for instance, is fantastic.  I'd love a model kit.   

I also wondered for the first time while watching this film for this review, if Airwolf was not actually a Blue Thunder knock-off (and a good one), but a Firefox knock-off.  Both productions involve the theft of a high-tech aircraft, both feature protagonists who are traumatized by the Vietnam conflict, and both crafts feature an element (air or fire) and mammal (wolf or fox) in their name.

Where the final, climactic segment of Firefox falls down, at least a little bit, is in the perhaps-unconscious but nevertheless obvious aping of Star Wars in one dramatic moment.

At one point in the aerial combat, Gant takes his Firefox down into an ice trench (like the Death Star technological trench), while his opponent pursues.  During the chase, we get a voice-over from Ben Kenobi, er Freddie Jones reminding him to think in Russian.  The voice-over is obvious and unnecessary, and the similarity to the Star Wars' climax merely takes away from all the respect Firefox achieves with its high-integrity, low-drama approach to storytelling.

Late in the film, the oily, villainous First Secretary of the U.S.S.R. taunts Gant with the questions "are you enjoying your ride, Mr. Gant? Like our new toy?"  In terms of the movie, the answer would have to be affirmative.  Firefox is a solid, well-crafted, intelligent ,techno-thriller, even today, and it earns your respect scene-by-scene.  More than that, it boasts a smart, contemplative core, asking its (predominantly American...) audience to think like a "Russian," and imagine what it means to live in a world without freedom, one where you can't fight City Hall.

Next Week on The Films of 1982: The Class of 1984.

12 comments:

  1. Well done, John! This is a underrated and under-appreciated Cold War, techno-thriller by Eastwood, if there ever was one. It is interesting that our man Clint, as a film director, has taken on a number of book adaptations as he transitioned from box office star of the 70s to noted filmmaker in later decades. A favorite of mine and J.D.'s White Hunter Black Heart, Absolute Power, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Bloodwork, and Flags of Our Fathers represent quite a spread of books and range.

    He picked off genres as he went along. Some he actually improved upon. 'The Bridges of Madison County' is, IMO, one sappy mess of a unimaginable bestselling novel. In Clint's hands, I can actually watch Robert James Waller inane love story and be drawn in, instead of wanting to fling it against the wall (as a good friend once described he did when trying to read that "damn novel"). Here, he did more than a credible job at taking on the techno-thriller.

    I read the late-Craig Thomas novel long ago and it was one of those tales that successfully blended espionage and the tech/military thriller to high end. You couldn't put it down. A real page turner. Tom Clancy became king of this genre, but CT wrote just as good or better plots w/ more deft characterizations and dialogue, I think. I wondered how Eastwood would take this on, given how the story transpired and that Gant is pretty isolated and solitary when he finally makes the theft.

    I though Alex Lasker and Wendell Wellman, along with a deft touch by Eastwood, really made this seamless for the audience. Read the book and you'll see translating the construct of the novel to the screen was a major accomplishment, especially for the movie viewers. I love the discourse between the Soviet air marshall and the premier during the climatic stretch as it only heightens what's going on up there and the screen. The audience never loses their place, and that's key here.

    And boy oh boy is it great to the see the old time (Star Wars vintage) effects by John Dykstra. Man, I miss them in this CGI age. Plus, how you not love Eastwood's delivery of lines in this. "Simple" is a word and half when Gant utters it when he does. I'm picking up the Blu-ray of this one soon (and I must watch it again and soon, given your fine review). Great job of examining and reminiscing about this Clint Eastwood film. As I did with your 'E.T.' piece, I'm going to cite it in an upcoming TMT, John. Many thanks.

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  2. Anonymous5:52 PM

    John, I absolutely agree that AIRWOLF has lineage to both FIREFOX and BLUE THUNDER. Other minor points regarding both Firefox(Clint Eastwood) and Airwolf(Jan Michael-Vincent), both protagonists live in a remote mountain cabin and are the 'only' pilot that can retrieve the prototype aircraft.

    SGB

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  3. The film really has no clue as to how the Soviet Military was run, and uses the old assumption that "MIG" means "Russian Fighter Plane," but I LOVE this film none the less. Interesting to note that the fictional MIG 31 looks like a cross between the MIG 25, and the plane it was created to counter, the B 70 Valkyrie bomber. Eastwood walking out in the black suit is classic, and the score rocks. As an aside, the late great "American Film" magazine ran a piece in the late 1980s about tech in the movies and how feasible it would all be in real life. One film they looked at was Firefox. The writer felt that telepathic weaponry was more likely to be built in our lifetime, rather than the total impossibility of an "invisible plane." Of course by that time the first generation of stealth craft were on the drawing boards and soon to fly. Still waiting for the tele weapons though.

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  4. Grayson11:44 PM

    I agree with le0pard13...I'll watch pretty much anything Clint Eastwood has done--from his early acting to to his classic roles (Dirty Harry/Man w/ No Name); from his more action-orientated films to his deeper directorial work. Really just one of the great American directors.

    P.S. John--it's been a while but I'll try to start posting here again. There's been quite a few changes in my life recently but I look forward to your reviews here in 2012.

    --Grayson

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  5. Hi everybody,

    Wonderful comments on the underrated Firefox here this weekend.

    Michael (Le0pard13): Very insightful how you pointed out Eastwood's continuing decision to adapt novels into films. I wonder if that is really and truly the secret to his success as a director: good, elaborate, established source material. Very interesting observation.

    I wish I had read the Thomas book, because it sounds great. I don't know why I never did (I've read a lot of Clancy, for instance...). Maybe it's something I ought to get to, and soon.

    And last but not least, I want to humbly and seriously thank you, as always, for supporting my work. I really appreciate this, Michael, as well as the great commentary. My eternal thanks, John

    SGB: Yes! Watching Firefox this time, it really came to the forefront of my mind how much Airwolf owes it. You're right to point out the cabin retreats of both lead characters, absolutely. I don't know why I never saw it more fully before now...

    David: Your excellent comment supports remarks I've seen about the inaccuracy of the depiction of Soviet technology and protocol in the film. I have no reason to suspect that these remarks are wrong, and like you, I just sort of ultimately decided they don't matter in terms of the drama and the movie-making. This is such a solid, confident, well-crafted techno-thriller. It seems absolutely real, even if some of the details are wrong.

    I love the story you posted too, about tele-weapons and stealth technology. Funny to have gotten that so backwards, isn't it? Great anecdote...

    Grayson: I share your admiration and respect for Clint Eastwood, a great movie star and actor who became a great director. He's an amazing fellw, and immensely talented. I first fell in love with his work and career through Firefox (and then segued into films like Sudden Impact, Tightrope, etc.).

    And, on a personal note, I hope everything is okay with you, Grayson. I always enjoy reading your comments, and I just hope you are well. That's the most important thing. If things have been bad, I hope they get better soon.

    Warmest regards,
    John

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  6. John, yeah I do give the film a pass as nobody outside of top military circles knew how the Soviet system worked or what the Experimental Design Bureaus were (such as MIG, Sukhoi, Tupolev, etc). I was 12 at the time of release and I certainly didn't know better.

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  7. A terrific write-up John and I will only second that emotion. You are right and fair in forgiving it any of its shortcomings or political ignorance or naivete. There was certainly great suspense. I will purchase this one someday [along with all or most of Eastwood's work]

    Anyway, in 1982, this was indeed one of the great ones and it had Clint Eastwood being what Clint Eastwood does best- BE A HERO and a patriot. I love the man!

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  8. Hi David: You and I see this very much the same. I understand Firefox has some inaccuracies, but the film is good enough (and smart enough) that you get over it. Even as a middle-aged guy like me! :)

    SFF: I share your regard and respect for Clint Eastwood. Hero and patriot: agree fully. I also love the man, and his films.

    best to you both!
    John

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  9. Excellent review! I share everyone's quibbles, but those are easily overlooked because the movie is (still) so damn enjoyable.

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  10. Anonymous3:49 PM

    John, as always, another excellent review and a real delight to read. Firefox was the very first Clint Eastwood movie I ever saw, and I enjoyed every minute of watching it. I, too, noticed the Star Wars similarity in the the film's conclusion, as well as the Blue Thunder and Airwolf overtones. The former of which, almost seemed like a replay of Firefox, but still just as enjoyable and fun to watch. My late father, who was a Vietnam veteran and a U.S.A.F. staff sergeant, could relate to what the character of Mitchell Gant endured in that controversial war. Even though he wasn't held as a P.O.W., he did see his share of man's inhumanity toward man. Something that he didn't talk about much. Sadly, the war affected him as bad as it had Gant. Hopefully, the human race has learned its lessons from that brutal part of history.

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  11. Anonymous6:38 PM

    Screw the "greater cause"!

    Yes, deaths are depicted in this movie as selfless, but what is not said (and couldn't be because it's an action flick after all) is that "greater cause" is what helped create such a monstrous state the USSR was (and China still is, and USA is turning to) in the first place. One's life and one's personal gain is all one really has. All sacrifices are done to somebody else's PERSONAL gain and should never be praised.

    Besides, in Soviet Russia death was a good option anyhow, heroic or not. THAT was also depicted.

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  12. Anonymous2:33 AM

    A remake of this film using modern CGI technology and also making the "Firefox Down" book into a movie would be great! Tweak the design of the airplane to be more stealthy.

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