Firefox is one of the best cold war movies highlighting the doctrine that neither side could allow the other to get too far ahead in military capability. Many believe that this strive for balance between the east and west is the reason mankind avoided global suicide. In this story the Soviets have developed an advanced fighter plane far beyond anything available or being developed in the west. Codenamed Firefox the aircraft is more sci-fi than advance technology particularly as it has a neural weapon system whereby the pilot merely has to think of the target for it to be destroyed, provided of course that he thinks in Russian. Without having a similar platform the west would be at a grave disadvantage against any perceived Soviet aggression.
The intelligent agencies in the UK and the USA have devised a plan to steal one of the two Firefox prototypes from a base deep inside Russia; or the USSR as it was known then. The operation is the brainchild of Aubrey, an eccentric and dishevelled British intelligence boffin, played by that quintessential character actor Freddie Jones. Of course they need an experienced pilot who can speak and think in Russian to fly the plane and operate the weapon system if need be. The only one to fit the bill turns out to be Major Mitchell Grant a retired American airforce officer. Unfortunately Grant is mentally scarred from the Vietnam War after witnessing a small girl caught in a napalm bomb firestorm, which was probably the most recognisable picture from the conflict ever caught on camera.
All this sounds like a straightforward role for Clint Eastwood but Gant has two totally different personas. To reach the airbase where Firefox is being tested he has to travel incognito. After a brief spell of spy training it’s a flight to Moscow dressed in civvies and sporting a fake moustache which makes him look so shifty he was bound to be stopped and searched at any airport in the world. Alone in a hostile country Gant becomes a neurotic powder keg, breaking out in a cold sweat every time he’s asked to show his papers. The stress he’s feeling brings on images of his Vietnam trauma, much to the consternation of his underground contact whose life expectancy would be short if Gant’s cover is blown. When in uniform however Gant is the epitome of confidence and bravado, dicing with death and enjoying it, like a cocksure daredevil, supercool in the face of danger.
There’s mounting tension as the KGB state police attempt to identify and apprehend Gant but he manages to stay one step ahead thanks to the underground network of Russian Jews, many of whom being scientists forced to work on the development of Firefox. There is no shortage of agents to track down the American but as with many organisations the KGB becomes more incompetent the higher up the ladder one goes and, once the head man takes over the case, Gant’s chances of success seem mightily improved.
Of course the highlights of the movie are the aerial scenes after Gant has stolen one of the prototypes. Together with a terrific soundtrack, penned by Maurice Jarre, they make for a roller coaster ride as he tries to evade and misdirect the mass of Russian military that is sent in pursuit. Yes, he can think in Russian and uses the neural weapon system to good effect. His main concern however is to find Mother, which is the designated call sign for his refuelling station.
Although an American production there is a plethora of British actors in the supporting cast as well as Freddie Jones, including Warren Clark best known as the second half of Dalziel and Pascoe, Ronald Lacy eternalised as the psychotic Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Arc, and Nigel Hawthorne whose epitaph will probably always be as Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister. They all provide easy to absorb dialogue.
The movie is well directed, although one wonders how much of this is down to Eastwood as he did have two Assistant Directors to share the load. He did however manage to capture the two sides of Gant perfectly. The script moves at a high rate of knots and thankfully there is no love interest to cause unnecessary diversions. It is very authentic in its depiction of the attitudes and fears prevalent during the cold war but the Firefox specifications were perhaps a little far fetched particularly when compared to the technology available today.