1982, Best Summer Ever: “Firefox”August 10, 2012
Wow, Firefox! This is an awesome movie, make no mistake. This is the kind of top-notch thriller they used to make in 1982. No seriously. You gotta remember that before ‘80s cinema was defined by be-mulleted cops and homoerotic volleyball games, it was still very much influenced by the golden age of character and storytelling we got in the ‘70s. And that’s why even a movie like Firefox—which, let’s face it, is patently ridiculous—still manages to be a neo-realistic, white-knuckled thriller shot through with vivid characterizations. If this movie were made today…oh wait, it was. And they called it Stealth.
Firefox is what we would later call a “techno-thriller” based upon the novel by Craig Thomas (who was sort of a proto-Tom Clancy, before Tom Clancy was invented). In it, the US discovers that the USSR (kids, you can Google it) has developed a new fighter, the MiG-31 Firefox. What does the Firefox do? What does it not do is the better question. It can hit a cruising speed of Mach 5 (Mach 6 in a pinch), has radar-invisible skin, and has a thought -controlled weapons system. As a war machine it can basically do everything short of actually negotiate the enemy’s surrender.
Well. Naturally NATO is freaked. They knew the Soviets (Google it) were heading this way, but figured they were a good ten years out from developing it. Now, this begs the obvious question: ten years? That means NATO should have had these things in the early 1990s. What the hell went wrong? We don’t have Mach 5 stealth-capable, ESP fighters. Best we got are a couple of designs that we’ve sunk quadzillions of dollars into and still don’t work right. Anyway, NATO sure as shit doesn’t want the Soviets to have it, so they do the logical thing: they send Clint Eastwood to steal it.
Okay, it’s a tad more complicated than that. Eastwood’s character, Mitchell Gant, is a highly decorated Vietnam ace whose mother was a Russian immigrant and can speak the language fluently. He’s also roughly the size of the pilot tapped to fly Firefox on its maiden flight, so he’ll fit into the flight suit (no, really).
But you can’t just send Clint Eastwood into Mother Russia and expect him to snag the keys to airplane. No, he has to make contact with a spy network of Russian Jews who have been working with Jewish scientists working on the Firefox, and so the first half of this movie is a great Cold War (Google it) spy thriller. You know, back in the days when good spy movies didn’t need to have the word “Bourne” in the title.
Of course, you know he’s gotta get into that plane, right? Clint Eastwood is no cock tease. So the final third of this movie turns into a great military thriller, as Gant must pilot the Firefox out of Soviet airspace, refuel on an ice floe, and finally do battle with the other Firefox prototype. This is when Firefox turns into the movie people think Top Gun was. The model work and other effects seem dodgy by today’s standards, but they’re endearingly so. It’s hard to explain, but they manage to project a greater sense of consequence than the CGI spectacle we get today.
The movie was directed by Clint Eastwood, and while many people find his spare directorial style off-putting, they’re wrong and stupid and bad and probably Satanic child-molesters. Firefox showcases Eastwood’s lean style perfectly, making this film as streamlined as the titular plane. There’s not a wasted shot, and he even manages to ratchet up the suspense of several scenes as expertly as any Brian DePalma movie (and without the inevitable dead, nude chick).
Eastwood’s a pretty high-profile Republican, and his political leanings are front and center in this film. What is intriguing, though, is the way they come out. Eastwood’s movie is an attack on the Soviet Union’s human rights abuses. Americans—aside from Gant—are largely absent, or bent over computer readouts in varying states of haggardness. Front and center are the Jewish spies and dissidents who put a face on the evil of the Soviet Union. When Gant asks one spy—who is not expected to survive the mission—if he resents the Western intelligence network that ordered him to his death, the man replies, “it’s a small thing compared to my resentment of the KGB.” In another scene, a spy tells Gant about his wife, who has been in prison for nineteen years for protesting the Prague Spring. “Every day I try to be worthy of her.” Compare this to the jingoistic, flag-waving of any Michael Bay movie, and you see why, yes, movies have gotten stupider in thirty years.
Okay, some random thoughts about Firefox.
* Holy shit, look at that poster. There is so much raw testosterone there it could make Wes Anderson grow balls.
* Gant is suffering from a whanging case of PTSD. Remember when everyone who came back from Vietnam was one loud firecracker away from totally losing their shit?
* Also, this begs the question: How many Vietnam aces were there? How many dogfights were there? Not many, I don’t think.
* It’s also cute to look back at a time when we thought air superiority would turn the tide of battle. And that getting it meant multi-billion dollar jets and not, say, a small drone piloted by a dude in a trailer in Nebraska.
* Of course, given what we now know of Soviet technology, if this actually happened, that plane would get about a hundred feet off the deck and then the wings would fall off and it would explode.
* You know, climate-change advocates went about it the wrong way. Maybe if they would have just argued, “But if the icebergs melt, where will we land a stolen Russian fighter jet to refuel it?” we’d’ve signed the Kyoto Accord.
* Is it necessarily a good idea to have a thought-controlled airplane? I mean, most of the time, I’m daydreaming about Kelly Hu, or my awesome new handgun, or, more often than not, both of those at once. Put me in the cockpit of that thing and I’m crashing it into a mountain about 20 seconds flat.
* This movie does not handle the Russian language very well. First, everyone speaks with a Russian accent, but then Gant and the KGB speak in actual Russian, and finally, when he’s impersonating the pilot at the airbase, Eastwood just speaks in his normal growl, but stops using contractions.
So, that was Firefox. Critics didn’t like it very much at the time, but screw them. The movie made back three times its budget, Eastwood went on to become an American filmmaking icon, and—most importantly—we won the effing Cold War! USA! USA! USA!