A bearded man jogs across American soil; he is war veteran and ex-pilot Mitchell Grant (Clint Eastwood). Out of nowhere a US helicopter hovers over him and chases him down to recruit him for a special intelligence mission: to steal a cutting-edge Soviet MiG-31 fighter plane known under the codename of “Firefox”. The reluctant Grant is forced to except this mission that will take him into the dragon’s den of Soviet intelligence on the dreaded KGB’s home turf. Grant is aided in his mission by a string of Soviet-based accomplices who are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to get him aboard the most deadliest fighter plane ever built!
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In his ninth film as a director, Clint Eastwood crafted a tense sci-fi thriller and placed himself in the lead role. The role of Mitchell Grant was a less conventional role from the usual bulletproof characters that Clint is normally associated with playing. As would be the case in future classics like: Unforgiven (1992) and Gran Torino (2008) Eastwood used his creative position of director to tailor and sculpt roles for himself that explored different types of heroes.
From the word go we see that Grant is not interested in conflict. He runs desperately from the military helicopter and takes cover in his house. As well as this, Grant is still tortured by the effects of war. He bares deep psychological scars caused by the images he witnessed in the Vietnam War. The rushes of harrowing images send him into a seizure and actor/director Clint allows us an insight into Grant’s mind. Despite his reluctance Grant has no other option but to accept the mission.
Grant is clearly not a trained spy but in a way this helps us identify with him. Judging by Grant’s living space we can se he’s a very private person. We get the impression he retreated from the mainland after the war and has been isolated ever since. Such people are very hard to identify with and even harder to penetrate emotionally. Eastwood uses this fish-out-of-water dynamic to invite the audience to empathize with Grant. Like him we are also new to such a thing as a secret intelligence mission… we are learning along the way with Grant. As Dr. Baronovich (Nigel Hawthorne) humorously suggests: “Foreign cigarettes in the mouth of the person you are pretending to be will be even more convincing than anything else - even your papers.”
Eastwood then uses Grant’s amateur mistakes cleverly as a way to build tension and suspense. After Grant kills a KGB agent in the public toilets, we are on the edge of our seats as he tries to get past another agent at the gates while the dead body in the toilet is slowly being discovered by another KGB agent. The obsessive nature of the KGB is brilliantly portrayed by Eastwood's direction. Around every corner is another agent who’s fully briefed on the situation and despite seeing Grant slip past agent after agent, we know more of them are on the way!
Grant soon redeems himself when he finally puts on his pilot helmet and escapes in the Firefox warplane! His comrade Baronovich has fallen so he must now go the final distance alone in the cockpit of the Firefox! Grant starts to look more like the hero as he flies circles around the Soviet military intelligence: “All right. The bait's been swallowed. Let's head north to the Urals.” The flight scenes perhaps look dated now but they do retain a frenetic energy and pace that make for an exciting aerial chase! The climactic dogfight is, after all what we’ve been waiting for!
In the final moments of the battle Grant remembers that the plane’s weapons are operated only by thoughts alone… but they must be thoughts in Russian! This is a great metaphor for the practice of empathizing with the opposition in order to overcome them. Once Grant masters this notion he is able to defeat the pilot on his tail and fly home through the beautiful magenta clouds.
Clint Eastwood’s Firefox is an accomplished thriller that shows the man’s talents behind the camera shaping up to match his ability in front of it!