Saturday, February 23, 2013

Firefox (Clint Eastwood, 1982)



Firefox is perhaps the least thrilling spy film I've ever seen. There are suspense sequences, but the film is almost entirely an internal play, a series of abstractions through which Eastwood's "character" passes. The surrounding Cold War is presented without real passion, an accumulation of indistinct, impersonal sets, as well as an emphasis on surfaces that calls to mind the digital work of Steven Soderbergh, to come more than 20 years later. 

Eastwood's protagonist, Mitchell Gant, is defined only by his pain (memories of a child's incineration in Vietnam) and his skills as a pilot. From there is whittled down completely, becoming less defined until he dissolves into the ether. Dave Kehr's description:

"As he moves along the stages of his mission, virtually everyone he comes in contact with is killed or sacrificed. His features disappear, first behind a false moustache and a pair of too large glasses; later, and more completely, behind the smoked glass visor of the fighter pilot’s helmet. Dressed in the orange flight suit of the Soviet pilot, he has become physically indistinguishable from him, but this is still not enough. The plane, “Firefox,” is controlled though a futuristic technology that translates the pilot’s thoughts into commands; in order to fly it successfully, Gant must think in Russian, thus giving up the last vestige of his American identity, his private thoughts."

What we are left with is a formally tight surface play (Kehr dubs it "Bressonian") that in turn lapses into highly abstracted internal play. The triumph of the film is its deft balancing act, or rather, the seamless way it weaves these two aspects together. The Cold War, the (sorry) icy surface of the spy plot is the most oppressive force, the continual fountain of Gant's pain. Confrontations with violence lead him to psychological breakdowns, his memories becoming brief, expressive montages of color. 

Eastwood repeatedly isolates Gant, stripping down his physical reality while creating an internal effect, a sort of expression of the subconscious as form that is largely absent in most of his work (other than Sudden Impact). Indeed, this is his most Hitchcockian work; notice, for instance, a sequence in a bathroom that highly recalls Marnie. Later, Gant hides in a red-lit, womb-like shower that feels more Giallo than Cold War thriller. 


The film's final act, while ostensibly an effects-heavy chase, is more a sequence of horizon lines, contrasted against Klaus Lowitsch (!) trying to predict Gant's movements from a room. As Gant himself becomes less defined, his force on the narrative begins to diffuse. Kehr again:

"Gant is reduced to a tiny dot on the screen as he flies away into the distance. Eastwood does not give us the expected triumphant climax, with the plane landing and Gant being applauded by his peers; the triumph, instead, lies in Gant’s final evaporation, in his liberation from himself."

It is the ultimate relief of pain, a visual "evaporation", as Kehr so elegantly put it. Like several Eastwood characters (William Munny and Frankie Dunn come to mind), Gant must liberate himself from the story, the world of the film, for freedom, moral exile, or some other indescribable force born of society or the mind (something Eastwood adapted from John Ford, and made his own). Firefox's ending is indeed beautiful and painful, a weight lifted, but also unflinchingly dark. Like Unforgiven, A Perfect World, Sudden Impact, The Gauntlet, etc etc, a personal retreat, defeat, victory or departure does not add any certainty to the outside world. Gant dissolves, the Cold War and its victims continue forward.