Firefox: Clint Eastwood attempted something different as an actor and director with this ‘James Bond’ meets ‘Star Wars’ hybrid of Sci-fi & Cold-war espionage thriller

Firefox (1982) is a cold-war techno thriller directed by Clint Eastwood, who also stars in the film. The film is adapted from a novel by Craig Thomas, and it’s one of the costliest films Eastwood has ever attempted in his career.

Long before it was an open-source browser developed by the Mozilla Corporation, “Firefox” was a Clint Eastwood action spectacle (okay, before that it was a novel by Craig Thomas). Clint produced and directed this film- apart from playing the lead role of ‘Mitchell Gant’. Though Clint has made films across genres, his films are always made on a small scale, and are predominantly human dramas: he does not go in for flashy techniques, or showcasing costly cinematic technology; so by those standards, “Firefox” is an unusual Clint Eastwood film:  he’s almost branching out into “Star Wars” territory here with this very expensive, special-effects laden, Sci-fi heavy, Cold-War espionage thriller. “Firefox” is perhaps the costliest film Clint has undertaken as a producer\director- it cost about $21 million in 1982 dollars. Much of the budget went into state of the art special effects in the film’s second half dealing with the theft of the titular “Firefox”- An advanced Soviet fighter aircraft which is capable of Mach 6 (hypersonic flight), is invisible to radar, and carries weapons that can be controlled by the pilot’s mind- giving the jet an advantage of a couple (or more) seconds over a normal one. The effects created by John Dykstra is very similar to the arterial battles he created for George Lucas’ “Star Wars”; and it looks a little dated by today’s standards, but for a 1982 film it looks great. Despite the abundance of special effects in the second half, the film still has the look and feel of a Clint Eastwood directed film- it’s formally graceful, evenly paced, meticulously crafted and serious minded, even if the subject matter comes across as rather frivolous- especially today with the benefit of hindsight: We know now that Soviet Union was close to breaking up in the 1980s, and the very thought that Soviets developed such an advanced fighter plane in a time of such political and economic turmoil- and outpacing the more resourceful Americans and Brits- seems to be the real Sci-fi element here. But those where the ‘Reagan’ years, when Hollywood writers and filmmakers were letting their imagination run wild as to how extreme the cold war can get, and how much of a threat the Soviets posed (or can pose) to the security of the United States. Firefox does belong to a long line of Cold-war action thrillers that was being made a lot in the early 80s- movies like “Red Dawn,” “Iron Eagle,” “Rambo” etc. , but while most of these movies have lost their edge today, “Firefox,” though not the greatest of Clint’s films, still retains great entertainment value and showcase a good deal of solid cinematic craft.

The 136 minute film is neatly bifurcated into two halves: the first half plays more like a tense, ‘James Bond’ thriller without any girls, and the second half features ‘Star Wars’ style futuristic aerial spectacle. The opening of the film is reminiscent of the opening scenes involving Martin Sheen’s “Captain Willard” from Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam-war classic, “Apocalypse Now”; here we find Air Force Major Mitchell Gant (Clint Eastwood), a Vietnam war veteran and Ex-POW, and who’s now living in seclusion in Alaskan woods, being haunted by the nightmares of the Vietnam war. Soon, he is visited by the members of American military with an offer he can’t refuse: to lead a joint American-British operation to infiltrate the USSR and steal the aforementioned “Firefox.” Gant is being selected not only for his prowess as an air force pilot, but also because his mother is Russian, and he can speak the Russian language fluently. In this mission, Gant will be aided by a network of Soviet dissidents- mainly Jews, three of whom are key scientists working on the fighter itself. Gant has to steal the Firefox and fly it back to friendly territory for analysis. Despite being Handicapped by post traumatic stress disorder and a lack of intelligence mission experience, Gant accepts the mission- he has no choice, the military threatens to run him out of his Alaskan property if he didn’t accept the mission. Gant is to enter USSR by impersonating a businessman named Leon Sprague, who is actually a drug peddler and closely watched by the KGB. Gant changes his appearance to resemble Sprague and lands in Moscow airport. After a day’s stay at Moscow hotel, Gant walks out into streets at night, with the KGB following him close behind. Gant rendezvous with one of the dissidents, Pavel Upenskoy (Warren Clarke) who has arrived for the meeting with the real Sprague. Pavel switches papers of the duplicate Sprague onto the real Sprague , then beats the real Sprague to death and throws the corpse into the river, and once again switches the identity of Gant. After a grueling cat & mouse game with the Russian secret service patrolling the streets, Pavel takes Gant to a warehouse, gives him a new identity of a Russian delivery man, and is driven to Bilyarsk, where the Firefox prototype is under heavy guard.

Meanwhile, the KGB has unearthed the conspiracy involving Sprague, and is hot on the heels of Pavel. Pavel drops Gant in Bilyarsk, and drives on. From there, Gant is helped by scientists, Dr. Semelovsky and Dr. Pyotr Baranovich to get to the airbase where Firefox prototype is under heavy guard. But things are much more complicated than what Gant was made to believe: a second Firefox prototype has also finished development and is lying in the hangar, and that must be destroyed before Gant steals the first prototype. By this time, KGB has figured out than an American agent has infiltrated the airbase, but they are not sure about the purpose of his operation. A thorough search of the premises is instituted. Gant, who has now impersonated a Russian officer, knocks out Lt. Colonel Yuri Voskov (Kal Wulff)- a Soviet pilot assigned to take the first prototype on its maiden flight during a visit from the Soviet First Secretary- and takes his place to fly the Firefox. The dissident scientists triggers an explosion to destroy the second prototype, but it’s unsuccessful, and all the scientists are executed by the soldiers. Gant uses this commotion to enter the Firefox and fly it off the base. From here on, the film becomes one lengthy aerial chase, with Gant, flying the Firefox, doing everything possible to evade the Russians as he makes his way out of Soviet territory. The film ends with a spectacular ‘Star Wars’ style dogfight, in which Voskov, who has boarded the second prototype, engages Gant in a thrilling Firefox vs Firefox duel in the skies above the North Cape.

Though the second half of the film is the more crowd-pleasing one- with its faster pace, dazzling special effects and action scenes, it’s the first half of the film that I like more. It’s in these portions that Clint puts his stamp as a graceful filmmaker; he believes in slow build up of tension and paranoia without resorting to quick cuts or bombastic music. All the ‘cloak & dagger’ stuff involving switching of identities and evading Russian secret service is handled very well. Plot wise, nothing much of significance happens here: Clint walking through parks, hastily jumping on trains, and hitching rides in delivery trucks might not appear to be thrilling enough for a section of modern audiences. But it is through these little moments that Clint efficiently establishes how oppressive the communist USSR was back then, especially for people arriving from outside. At almost every turn there are slimy KGB agents in cheap leather jackets jumping out and demanding ‘papers’ from anybody unlucky enough to be out in public at that time. “Your papers please” line is repeated so many times to Clint’s character within the first hour that the audience feel as exasperated and persecuted as Gant. That’s really director Clint’s intention; and even though one wishes the pacing in the first half was a little tight- maybe the film could have got Gant to the airbase much more quickly- it does give Clint the opportunity to creates some moody scenes; with Bruce Surtees’ underlit photography (sometimes too dark I’m afraid) is splendidly framed to achieve an atmospheric air of growing paranoia. From the brightly lit Alaskan woods, Gant enters a dark and dangerous world where everybody is watching everyone else. The next flash of bright color and sunlight appears only after Gant steals the Firefox and soars away into the dawn sky. Scenes of Gant’s flying across a bright, burning sky, and over the white, snowy landscape is intercut with the Russians contemplating their moves sitting in a (extremely) dark room- an effective visual device to accentuate the contrast between the ‘free’ world and the ‘Soviet’ world. Maurice Jarre’s music score for the film may not be his best- sometimes it tries to ape John Williams’ score for the ‘Star Wars’ movies just too much- but the scoring for those gritty, early scenes is pretty good. Suffice to say that the technical team has done their best in putting across the grim, monolithic, paranoid nature of the Soviet state.

Another reason why this oppressive milieu of erstwhile Soviet Union needs to be thoroughly established is because the mission that Gant has undertaken is quite an ‘immoral’ one: he’s after all out to steal something great that the enemy has created out of their own resourcefulness. The world in which the film exist, United States is supposed to be the good guys and USSR is the evil empire; and ‘the ‘good guys’ don’t go around stealing such great innovations, they are supposed to create and protect them. What Clint is trying to establish is that if the Soviets manage to produce Firefox en masse, then it will tilt the balance of cold-war in their favor. Which means the rest of the world will come under the kind of oppressive regime that’s now restricted to the Soviet bloc nations. This makes Gant’s act of stealing ‘Firefox’ a noble one. Of course, Clint is not fully successful in conveying all these ideas effectively and economically, which leads to some sluggishness in the first half (and even second half) of the film. I don’t think Clint was very comfortable making a film of this kind and size; his discomfort as a filmmaker is visible in several parts of the film, which is why this film is not as taut and cohesive as his other well-made films. I think one major reason why Clint attempted a film of this kind and scale was because he was facing a box office slump at the time: after ruling the box office for more than a decade with his Westerns, war films and urban action pictures, his attempts to branch out into serious drama had not lead to commercial success; films like “Escape from Alcatraz,” “Bronco Billy,” and “Honkytonk Man” were artistically courageous endeavors, but the box office had not responded favorably- denting (even if marginally) his reputation as a worldwide box office colossus. Determined to reassert his box office clout, Clint chose a genre where the audiences can easily relate with him; but even there “Firefox” falls into the espionage\intrigue category which Clint hasn’t dealt with much. One film that comes to mind is “Eiger Sanction (1975),” but that was just a middling box office success.

For a more successful Clint film in that genre we will have to go back to 1968s “Where Eagles Dare”- the highly popular ‘Men on a Mission’ actioner set during WWII. There, Clint, along with Richard Burton and a team of British commandoes\spies, sets off on a mission to infiltrate a German castle to save an American general. “Firefox” bears more than passing resemblance to “Eagles..” and many WWII adventure films: instead of Nazis we have the Soviets; instead of the Gestapo we have KGB; and like the Nazis in those films, the Soviets are portrayed as grim, humorless (of course, there’s a lot of unintentional comedy in the high-voltage interactions between the soviets), and ruthless- who sacrifice their own people, torture prisoners, and are annoyed when the prisoner happens to die; instead of the heroic French, Polish or Spanish resistance fighters we have Jewish dissidents who help the hero- they sacrifice their lives for the cause, preferring to shoot themselves rather than surrendering to the enemy. Perhaps, Clint was hoping that “Firefox” would become a film in the mold of “Eagles..,” but that film was not directed by Clint- it was directed by Brian G. Hutton. Maybe this material would have been better served with someone other than Clint as the director; someone with a taste for these kind of hi-tech spectacle.

As an actor, Clint comes across the least confident he has ever appeared in any of his action\adventure films up to that time. I don’t know whether this was by design or accident, or Clint was really tired from the pressures of pulling together this massive production, but it suits the character he’s playing. Usually in a ‘Clint Eastwood’ action film, Clint is as impervious as a bulletproof vest- you’re absolutely sure that no danger can get to this guy. But here, we really feel that the guy is in danger. He is much more subdued than he usually is: he appears, exhausted, harried and confused by all the chasing and repeated questioning that he’s subjected to; he’s also a guy who has issues of his own. Maybe that’s why this film is totally devoid of Clint’s trademark dry humor: no witty quips or comebacks, no punchlines, no comic sidekicks, nothing. It’s not until he flies off with the Firefox that the some of the cool and confident Clint resurfaces. There are also no romantic interludes, or young, beautiful women hitting on Clint. The film follows a a very straightforward narrative-line for the hero: get into USSR, steal the plane and get out; and the story never deviates from this. That’s a true plus point of the film. As for the other performances, they are all way over the top, as if to compensate for Clint’s subtlety. The performance I loved the most was from Freddie Jones in the part of the British operative who explains the plan to Clint. Jones is burly and loud in the mold of the great British thespian, Charles Laughton, But his overacting in this film would leave Laughton looking like Clint. Jones overacts outrageously, filling his performance with elements of ironic humor, and entertains us like nothing else in the film. Look for the scene where he screams “We don’t know” when it appears that Gant and the plane is lost- it’s Laugh out loud. Warren Clarke, one of the hoods from “A Clockwork Orange,” also does his part to enliven the film with his over-the-top act. He looks angry and rude all the time, and takes special pleasure in chastising Gant at every turn- “you fool, the papers are in order, they’re in order…” Ha ha ha….

Upon its release, the film was poorly reviewed: most of the reviewers complaining about the film’s length, it’s slow pace and the preposterous plot. But despite the poor reviews, the film was commercially successful- reestablishing Clint’s box office credentials; but it was not the blockbuster Clint had hoped for. Not to worry; the very next year he returned with the fourth “Dirty Harry” film “Sudden Impact,” and that would become the big blockbuster that he was searching for.

4 thoughts on “Firefox: Clint Eastwood attempted something different as an actor and director with this ‘James Bond’ meets ‘Star Wars’ hybrid of Sci-fi & Cold-war espionage thriller

  1. Very thoughtful analysis and I pretty much agree with it. Craig Thomas did come into the American scene somewhat unexpectedly and other than Firefox, Firefox Down and Winterhawk (all featuring Gant as a main character) he hasn’t had the same success here as he enjoyed with the dozen or so books he has written in that universe. For instance, Ken Colly’s KGB colonel character comes back in two later books with the chapters “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” featuring him. Ken Colly played Admiral Piett in ESB and ROTJ. Thomas could have been as big in the states as Tom Clancy, but alas it wasn’t meant to be.

    Firefox is a good film to watch again. I first saw it when I was 12 and while the action aspect attracted me, the slow burn of the chase fascinated me. Apparently Craig framed the subway escape and chase around an actual Moscow train schedule. As I watch the film today I am still fascinated by it. Some elements are mirrored in films like “The Fourth Protocol” and “Hunt for Red October” (with “fish out of water” Jack Ryan played by Alec Baldwin).

    While it wasn’t conveyed well in the film, Gant’s selection for the Firefox mission doesn’t seem as much “fish out of water” as it sounds given his history with the USAF Aggressor squadrons. Recently it has come out that there was a unit within the Aggressor units called the “Red Hats” that did fly captured MiGs in dissimilar air combat training through the late 80s under a program called “Constant Peg”. File that under truth is stranger than fiction.

    One final interesting Firefox connection can be seen in the Eastwood film “Trouble With the Curve” when Clint’s old MLB scout character relates to his adult daughter why he sent her away when she was young. Look really close at the flashback scene where Clint beats the tar out of a child molester, it is a digital manipulation of the fight scene from Firefox where Gant kills a KGB agent. Very creative. Thanks again for the look back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jay. I believe Clint was at one time thinking of making Firefox down, but later it was shelved. Craig Thomas dedicated Firefox Down to Clint. And that’s an astute observation regarding the scene in trouble with the curve. I didn’t make the connection. Thanks for the info

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  2. Great review. But still too long. Just my opinion. This clint eastwood movie is really a departure from his usual topics but “Firefox” is truely a classic adventure and after viewing it recently again after so many years i realized this film has really stood the test of time. I. Must admitt the storyline is pretty simple, but the action with the dog-fight in the sky are great impossible but great. However, in my opinion, the espionage at the beginning of the movie saves it. There could”ve been a better ending but i am no filmmaker still remains one of my favorite films from it’s era

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