Clint Eastwood’s Cold War thriller Firefox (1982), based on the novel by Craig Thomas, has a bit of a rep as a plodding spy film, partially enlivened by some fancy model work dog fights in the third act. Rewatching it the other night, it struck me that the minutiae of the set-up, evasions and manoeuvres are as gripping in their way as the recently lauded Le Carre adaptations on both big screen and small – a case of Tinker Tailor Flyer Spy.
The set up is simple. It’s the height of the Cold War, and British and American Intelligence have been made aware of the development by the Soviets of a super stealth fighter, capable of MACH 5, invisible to radar, and with weapons controlled by the pilot’s thought processes, all giving them a leap ahead if it makes it into production. Tipped off by Nigel Davenport, head of the brilliant dissident Jewish science team coerced into working on it, and abetted by a network of brave assets, the plan is to have Eastwood’s Russian speaking pilot Mitchell Gant infiltrate the Soviet Union and steal the prototype plane from under the Russian’s noses.
The film is almost ahead of its time (see Spooks, Homeland, The Americans) and also a throwback to earlier cold war thrillers like Ice Station Zebra (at one point Gant touches down in the titular plane to refuel from an American sub on an ice floe) in its devilish detailing, emphasis on “legends”, disguises, and grainy satellite photos. Even harkening back to Jean-Pierre Melville’s WWII Resistance thriller Army Of Shadows.
The personalities involved are either flawed, or living on the edge – a far cry from the cartoonish plots of Roger Moore’s James Bond films of the time. Gant is a Vietnam veteran and former member of an elite squadron that trains in captured Soviet hardware. He’s since resigned, suffering from then relatively misunderstood PTSD. The sympathetic American “business man” (actually a drug dealer) he replaces on entering Moscow is brutally murdered by Gant’s contacts to throw the KGB off their scent. He’s an expendable asset, a “polezni durak” who’s served his purpose. Vienna stands in convincingly for the nightime city evasions. Eastwood’s propensity as a director for minimal, moody lighting pays off well with the noir-ish atmosphere – many shots of KGB brass debating what’s going on or plotting the plane’s course on underlit maps have their eyes hooded, apparatchiks of the “evil empire” as Reagan traduced Russia to. Look out for Kenneth Colley (The Empire Strikes Back’s Captain Piett) classing up the joint as the KGB Colonel in charge of security for the Firefox programme. Think of him as this film’s Director Krennic to Davenport’s Rogue One Galen Orso equivalent.
The film makes no illusions about the difficulty of life in a surveillance state – aware something is going on, uniformed KGB and plain clothes officers flood the Underground, checking papers. Warren Clarke’s Pavel lambasts Gant for crumbling under pressure and killing one such operative. British SIS chief Kenneth Aubrey’s (Freddie Jones) reminder to Gant relates as much to the job on the ground as in the air – “Remember, you must think in Russian.” For the network, the risk is all – loved ones have been locked up for years for speaking out, or even for being perceived as a threat to the state. “Fighting City Hall” as Gant innocently but flippantly remarks, is to them an all-consuming cause for the simple right to live, think, and breath freely, without fear.
Once in the air (aided by VFX maestro John Dykstra) Firefox outmanoeuvres missile batteries and destroyers whilst top brass, constrained by a spluttering First Secretary, must work out where he is heading to based on range and fuel supply. As the super plane whooshes across the sea, water blasts up behind its twin jets, an effect copied in the X-Wing attack on Tokadana in The Force Awakens. When the second Firefox prototype joins the fray, because Gant couldn’t bring himself to kill the pilot he was replacing (soft American not thinking in Russian!) the action resembles the trench run in Star Wars, as they swoop and dart through icy canyons. Thanks to a new technique at the time (reverse blue-screen photography), the aerial shots still hold up quite well. The only thing that makes a nonsense of the high-tech combat is the fact that Gant slowly enunciates his commands to release his missiles when the kit is designed to action via his thought-waves.
All in all, Firefox is an intelligent, twisty confident thriller, worthy of a reappraisal.