Underrated Eastwood: Firefox (1982)


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 (available on Netflix Instant). His entire early 80s output, from Bronco Billy (1980, also on Netflix Instant) 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 ofanxiety. 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.

16 Responses Underrated Eastwood: Firefox (1982)
Posted By Michael J. Anderson : July 6, 2010 3:35 pm

An exceedingly well-written piece on an Eastwood that is under-recognized, with myself included among those who rarely consider it. I was especially struck, upon your initial recommendation (not that I was in the process of becoming an Eastwood completist independently, mind you), by an element you make mention of: namely that Eastwood is a “bad actor” (as a spy in this film, though reflexively when one considers the relationship of this work to his star-persona). I guess that the moral is that Eastwood almost never stops thinking about, critiquing and revising his own image. In this respect, his art stands out for the demands it places on its spectators: specifically to know and think about his other work. (Now that I have begun writing this, I am thinking, maybe I should write a preview on my site?)

Posted By Michael J. Anderson : July 6, 2010 3:35 pm

An exceedingly well-written piece on an Eastwood that is under-recognized, with myself included among those who rarely consider it. I was especially struck, upon your initial recommendation (not that I was in the process of becoming an Eastwood completist independently, mind you), by an element you make mention of: namely that Eastwood is a “bad actor” (as a spy in this film, though reflexively when one considers the relationship of this work to his star-persona). I guess that the moral is that Eastwood almost never stops thinking about, critiquing and revising his own image. In this respect, his art stands out for the demands it places on its spectators: specifically to know and think about his other work. (Now that I have begun writing this, I am thinking, maybe I should write a preview on my site?)

Posted By Medusa : July 6, 2010 4:36 pm

Great post and I’m going to re-watch this soon.

I’d also like to point out if I might that this movie has one of the big screen performances of David Huffman, the talented actor who was murdered in 1985 while heroically pursuing a fleeing thief. Tragic story, and I did a blog on David in the early days of Movie Morlocks, which might be of interest to folks who watch “Firefox”: http://moviemorlocks.com/2007/05/10/remembering-a-fallen-actor-and-hero/
Be sure to read the comments, where there are many lovely memories (which keep coming in, too) from family and friends of David, who was a fine actor and the husband of casting exec Phyllis Huffman. After the death of her husband Clint Eastwood was instrumental in helping Phyllis get back on her feet. She cast many of Eastwood’s films up until her own death in 2006.

Good to put the spotlight on this interesting film.

Posted By Medusa : July 6, 2010 4:36 pm

Great post and I’m going to re-watch this soon.

I’d also like to point out if I might that this movie has one of the big screen performances of David Huffman, the talented actor who was murdered in 1985 while heroically pursuing a fleeing thief. Tragic story, and I did a blog on David in the early days of Movie Morlocks, which might be of interest to folks who watch “Firefox”: http://moviemorlocks.com/2007/05/10/remembering-a-fallen-actor-and-hero/
Be sure to read the comments, where there are many lovely memories (which keep coming in, too) from family and friends of David, who was a fine actor and the husband of casting exec Phyllis Huffman. After the death of her husband Clint Eastwood was instrumental in helping Phyllis get back on her feet. She cast many of Eastwood’s films up until her own death in 2006.

Good to put the spotlight on this interesting film.

Posted By Thomas Krul : July 6, 2010 7:00 pm

I saw this movie as a kid on a rented beta tape. My desire for watching was firstly because of the plane and secondly because of Eastwood (whom I’d only seen in presumably-censored late-night TV replays of his westerns and Dirty Harry movies). Loved it, thanks for the great review.

Posted By Thomas Krul : July 6, 2010 7:00 pm

I saw this movie as a kid on a rented beta tape. My desire for watching was firstly because of the plane and secondly because of Eastwood (whom I’d only seen in presumably-censored late-night TV replays of his westerns and Dirty Harry movies). Loved it, thanks for the great review.

Posted By smallerdemon : July 7, 2010 1:38 am

Don’t forget, Atari released a laserdisc based videogame based on this movie: http://www.arcade-museum.com/game_detail.php?game_id=7815

It was pretty awesome I thought. :) There was even a built in headphone jack for those that could take advantage of their Walkman headphones, which had to be a first.

Posted By smallerdemon : July 7, 2010 1:38 am

Don’t forget, Atari released a laserdisc based videogame based on this movie: http://www.arcade-museum.com/game_detail.php?game_id=7815

It was pretty awesome I thought. :) There was even a built in headphone jack for those that could take advantage of their Walkman headphones, which had to be a first.

Posted By Jenni : July 7, 2010 3:56 pm

I am not familiar with this movie, but my husband recalled it right away with just me mentioning the title. I think I need to rent it soon! Thanks for a great review and for bringing up an interesting point about Eastwood’s acting. I think a lot of our good actors just play themselves reacting to the plots they found themselves in, aka Eastwood. I would put James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Tom Hanks in this category.

Posted By Jenni : July 7, 2010 3:56 pm

I am not familiar with this movie, but my husband recalled it right away with just me mentioning the title. I think I need to rent it soon! Thanks for a great review and for bringing up an interesting point about Eastwood’s acting. I think a lot of our good actors just play themselves reacting to the plots they found themselves in, aka Eastwood. I would put James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Tom Hanks in this category.

Posted By Jeff H. : July 10, 2010 1:31 am

Another film of Eastwood’s that I admired but didn’t like very much when I first saw it was WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART, a roman a clef about the making of THE AFRICAN QUEEN. It received mixed reviews, poor box office and only played in a few theaters back in the early 90′s. It also deserves rediscovery, which is what I did just recently and discovered a very restrained yet powerful performance by Eastwood, as well as a good supporting one by Jeff Fahey.

Also check out BIRD, which is probably the greatest film EVER made about jazz.

Posted By Jeff H. : July 10, 2010 1:31 am

Another film of Eastwood’s that I admired but didn’t like very much when I first saw it was WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART, a roman a clef about the making of THE AFRICAN QUEEN. It received mixed reviews, poor box office and only played in a few theaters back in the early 90′s. It also deserves rediscovery, which is what I did just recently and discovered a very restrained yet powerful performance by Eastwood, as well as a good supporting one by Jeff Fahey.

Also check out BIRD, which is probably the greatest film EVER made about jazz.

Posted By Mariospants : July 10, 2010 11:13 am

I’ve GOT to see this movie!

Posted By Mariospants : July 10, 2010 11:13 am

I’ve GOT to see this movie!

Posted By Charlos : July 19, 2010 2:49 pm

The one question I have about Clint Eastwood’s directing career that I haven’t found an answer for anywhere is, why did he drop Bruce Surtees as his regular cinematographer? During the Seventies and Eighties I would go see a movie if I heard that Surtees had photographed it, which led me to see gems like “The Outfit” that I would otherwise have missed. Surtees now seems to work mostly on television, actually it’s been a few years since he had a new credit at IMDB.

And thank you, Medusa, for the article on David Huffman, I remember how shocked I was to hear of the death of that fine actor.

Posted By Charlos : July 19, 2010 2:49 pm

The one question I have about Clint Eastwood’s directing career that I haven’t found an answer for anywhere is, why did he drop Bruce Surtees as his regular cinematographer? During the Seventies and Eighties I would go see a movie if I heard that Surtees had photographed it, which led me to see gems like “The Outfit” that I would otherwise have missed. Surtees now seems to work mostly on television, actually it’s been a few years since he had a new credit at IMDB.

And thank you, Medusa, for the article on David Huffman, I remember how shocked I was to hear of the death of that fine actor.

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