UNDERRATED EASTWOOD: FIREFOX (1982)

July 6, 2010

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Beginning on July 9th, the Film Society at Lincoln Center in NYC will be mounting their misleadingly titled“Complete Clint Eastwood” series, which will run all the films he directed, but only a select few of his key acting turns (it’s a superb program regardless). It’s in honor of his 80th birthday, which our own Susan Doll celebrated a few months back. With Clint well represented on home video, it’s easy for anyone outside NYC to curate their own Eastwood retrospective, and one that I suggest deserves re-evaluation is his 1982 spy thriller, Firefox. His entire early 80s output, from Bronco Billy (1980) through Sudden Impact (1983), is extraordinary and relatively forgotten, but Firefox, perhaps due to its bizarre sci-fi trappings, has been judged harshly and dumped into the late-night cable dustbin.

Eastwood plays Mitchell Gant, a retired Air Force pilot suffering from hallucinations of his time as a POW in the Vietnam War. He’s called back into action after the U.S. learns that the USSR had completed construction of a high-tech MiG-31 plane, code-named Firefox. Able to fly at 6-times the speed of sound, invisible to radar, and with a weapons system commanded by the pilot’s mind, eliminating reaction time during dogfights, it could swing the arms race and the momentum of the Cold War. Gant is tasked to steal it because of his language skills, since the plane’s system will work only with someone thinking in Russian. In comparing it to his more satiric Eiger Sanction, Eastwood said, “Firefox was more ‘square’, more traditional. It was about bad guys with pink eyes, but ordinary characters faced with an impossible mission.”

Gant is so ordinary as to be anonymous. Thrust rather unwillingly into the teeth of the Cold War, he is a bundle of anxiety. Eastwood works out various permutations of uneasiness on his face, raising his lips in grimaces and lowering them in scowls representative of a man supremely uncomfortable in his own skin. Shuttled from disguise to disguise and personality to personality (from an American heroin dealer to a tourist to a Russian pilot) acts as a subtle commentary on his own constructed personas. The ironic anti-heroism of his Man With no Name and the obsessive obstreperousness of Dirty Harry, then, are merely other skins, and his queasy performance reflects his ambiguous relationship to them. All of his films, it seems, are re-evaluations and deconstructions of his own personality, and Firefox is one of the earliest and smartest examples of this (taken up later by Sudden Impact straight through to Unforgiven and Gran Torino).

Gant isn’t a heroic figure as much as a man buoyed by circumstance. He never seems in control, pushed forward by his CIA handlers, then handed off to his resistance contacts in Russia, always instructed carefully, never in charge of his own fake lives. In fact, Gant is repeatedly chastised for his performances, encouraged to feign sickness to cover-up his awkward acting chops. His awkwardness and ever-present fear make this film more in the vein of John Le Carre than James Bond, and Bruce Surtees’ low-light photography perfectly expressive of its harshly deterministic narrative. Each of the men he meets is invested body and soul for the future of Russia, and stoically give up their lives for their cause, while Gant is a confused hired gun doing the job because he’s the only one who can. He seems without ideology, disturbed by the resistance fighters heroic sacrifices, giving their lives on the slim chance that Gant will succeed. It’s a utilitarian spy movie,  a morbid landscape where bodies are disposed of after they fulfill their mission, a grim game where deaths are freely given for the slim hope of success. Dave Kehr has even described the film’s terseness as “Bressonian” in his Chicago Reader capsule review, and it’s hard to disagree, or even think of another 80s action movie where that could even be remotely applicable.

In an interview with Michael Henry, he says that Firefox “is the only one of my pictures I used storyboards on.” And while he specifically mentions how he mapped out the final plane special effects sequences, the film as a whole seems finely structured. The major movement is from the dark spy sequences to the bright blue skies of the flight out of Russia, but there are micro-movements inside, including some expertly paced cross-cutting sequences. The opener cuts between the U.S. government war room and the attempt to convince Gant to join the mission at his woodsy home.

It quickly dispenses with the back-story while introducing the idea that Gant is a small pawn in major geo-political movements. This becomes clear during the final cross-cutting sequence, which shifts between the Soviet and U.S. war rooms tracking Gant’s movements in the air, with Gant himself caught in the middle, speaking Russian to an obliging super-plane.

Gant seems happiest in this final movement, cut off from humanity, and submerging his personality into a machine.He’s destroying his individuality while ostensibly flying to freedom. The images brighten as thematically the film grows even darker – self-annihilation as a kind of euphoric release.

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