When it’s on: Saturday, 9 February (11.30 pm)
Firefox is 30 this year. I don’t suppose this will provoke any kind of celebration, though back in its day the film prompted a minor flurry of interest for the effects work of John Dykstra, filling the screen with shots of the world’s quickest military plane in action. Certainly, it was the promise of Firefox itself that dominated the picture’s publicity, and led to playground disappointment in my school when it emerged you got two-thirds Cold War thriller to one-third aerial dogfights. The view from those who’d seen it was that Firefox was boring. It’s probably for this reason that I didn’t catch it myself until years later. Perhaps it was this opinion, writ large in contemporary reviews, that ensured Firefox scraped into the top twenty in 1982’s American box office returns.
For me, one word that most certainly doesn’t sum Firefox up is boring. And indeed, watched many, many years after its initial release, the more interesting element of the film turns out to be the story building up to the eponymous plane’s appearance. Firefox, once its star and director, Clint Eastwood, mounts the cockpit, becomes another reference to the influence of Star Wars, with its effects heavy, niftily edited sequences of the craft shooting along at impossibly fast speeds; in fact much of the work put into these moments now looks rather dated – these things really did work out better when they had the inky vacuum of space as a background.
Fortunately, the espionage yarn that dominates Firefox is pretty effective stuff, even if it’s skewed by the paranoid politics of the era. Perestroika was some years away. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, his administration ushering in a new freezing of East-West relations as the USSR was once again perceived as the implacable foe, not just an opponent of colossal size and unguessable resources but one with unknown developments in weapons technology, all designed of course to gain the upper hand in some upcoming World War Three. One of the best known books to arise from this perception was The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy, which postulated an advanced Russian nuclear submarine that had the ability to ‘vanish’ from radars. Craig Thomas’s Firefox, published in 1977, did the same for fighter aircraft, though his wasn’t a tale about defection but rather American efforts to infiltrate the Soviet Union and physically steal the plane.
In the adaptation, Eastwood directs himself as Mitchell Gant, a former pilot involved in Vietnam. He’s handpicked for the job of nicking Firefox because of his Russian mother, which makes him not only fluent in the language but, crucially, able to think in Russian. This is important because Firefox is a plane controlled by thought, a development that makes reactions instantaneous and giving it a split second’s advantage in any aerial fight. Gant might be considered ‘the best of the best’ as a pilot, but he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, at moments of distress returning helplessly in his mind to flashbacks of a young Vietnamese girl being incinerated in a napalm strike.
After an ominous pep talk from military adviser Freddie Jones, who cheerfully advises him of the steps he must take to avoid certain death, Gant, disguised as a businessman with legitimate reasons for visiting the Soviet Union, finds himself in Moscow. Here, he’s helped to the base where Firefox is stationed by a string of sympathisers, in reality British actors (Warren Clarke, Nigel Hawthorne, etc) with thick accents, whilst a similar cabal of Brits, led by Kenneth Colley, play the KGB officials slowly get wind of the theft plot. Criticism has been made of Eastwood’s rather austere performance as Gant, with the word ‘wooden’ used rather unfairly, but it’s made clear he’s no spy and is being swept along for much of the film by people trying to help him to reach his goal. As he’s trafficked towards Firefox, Gant is little more than a bystander, watching his new ‘friends’ get killed routinely by the authorities while he remains just out of reach. In fact, Eastwood captures the sense of paranoia his character undergoes rather well, the mounting dread he experiences as the enormity of his mission and the price being paid is hammered home. This is Russia as a dangerous place, where everyone is a potential informer and every glance is filled with suspicion and mistrust. The claustrophobic atmosphere is utterly palpable, even during a throwaway scene where Gant’s papers are checked by a policeman.
Vienna filled in for Moscow, back when a film like Firefox naturally couldn’t be shot on location in the USSR, which leads to several moments of unintentional comedy (Eastwood walks before an obvious projection of Red Square; he’s staying in Moscow Hotel, Moscow, etc) but never looks terrible, allowing for a certain suspension of disbelief. The introduction of Firefox itself is a rather fine money shot, all smooth lines, painted in black and clearly built for aerodynamic advantage. It’s only when Gant takes to the air in his new toy that the film loses some of its interest. The tone changes from thriller to action, Eastwood having to audibly describe what he’s doing to keep bewildered viewers informed of his progress. He’s being pursued by the second prototype, one that can be refueled in the air whilst he has to stop in the Arctic Circle and get topped up by a US submarine, which means it will catch up and they’ll have it out in the film’s climactic dogfight. It’s decent enough, but with big machines taking over from the plight of a single, vulnerable human being among millions of potential enemies, the stakes drop.