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.
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.
In the film’s final sequence, replete with masterful effects from John Dykstra, Firefox literally and metaphorically takes flight…and proves utterly rousing.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
Next Week on The Films of 1982: The Class of 1984.