Saturday, June 18, 2022

40 Years Ago Today: Firefox (1982)

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' 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, Eastwood's confident 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. (See: Ukraine).

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 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.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:28 PM

    I saw this in the cinemas that summer. It was the first Clint Eastwood film that I saw. It made me a fan of his work for life.


Guest Post: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

Sometimes An Ego Does A Body Good: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) By Jonas Schwartz No one deserves to be mocked more than N...