Firefox (novel and film)

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Firefox
Firefox-clint-eastwood-movie-poster.jpg
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Produced by Clint Eastwood
Written by Craig Thomas (novel)
Alex Lasker (script)
Starring Clint Eastwood
Freddie Jones
Warren Clarke
Nigel Hawthorne
Kenneth Colley
Oliver Cotton
Kai Wulff
Stephan Schnabel
Music by Maurice Jarré
Cinematography Bruce Surtees
Editing by Ron Spang
Ferris Webster
Distributed by Warner Brothers
Release date(s) June 18, 1982
Running time 136 min
Country USA
Language English
Allmovie profile
IMDb profile
: This article describes the 1977 novel and 1982 film. For the web browser, see Mozilla Firefox. For other uses, see Firefox (disambiguation).

Firefox was a Cold War era novel, written by Craig Thomas (published 1977) and a 1982 film about a shell-shocked Vietnam War veteran who must penetrate into the Soviet Union to steal the ultimate high-performance jet fighter-interceptor and fly it out through the Soviet air and naval defenses. In the process he must come to terms with a horrific memory of the death of a civilian that occurred during his rescue from his Communist captors in Vietnam.

Contents

Plot

Spoiler warning
This article contains important plot information

A surprise re-activation

A Huey helicopter flies over the Alaskan wilderness, its pilots looking for someone below. That someone, Major Mitchell Gant USAF (Rtd) (Clint Eastwood), hears the helicopter approaching and instantly breaks into a dead run back toward his cabin, where he takes a shotgun off its rack and cocks it. As the helicopter lands, Gant lapses into a rehash of a nightmare that he lived through in Vietnam: shot down over the North in his A-4, he was being taken to a prison camp when two Hueys machine-gunned his captors. But what made him upset was that an overflying A-4 dropped an incendiary on the site, killing a little girl who stood around too long, watching the battle. Back in the present, Captain Arthur Buckholz (David Huffman) greets him and apologizes for the surprise.

The next several scenes are back-and-forth cuts between the conversation between Gant and Buckholz, and a briefing being run by Kenneth Aubrey (Freddie Jones) of the British SIS concerning the Soviet Union's latest fighter/interceptor: the Mikoyan-Gurevich Model 31, given the codename "Firefox" by NATO. Its capabilities seem otherworldly: total stealth capability, twin engines each delivering 50,000 pounds of thrust, combat ceiling 100,000-feet-plus, speed in excess of Mach 5 or even Mach 6 (and able to maintain it, no small feat), and a weapons and defense system able to read the pilot's thoughts and allow him to aim and fire his weapons without even having to press a button, thus affording him a 3- to 5-second reaction-time advantage over any opponent. NATO's decision: send Gant in to steal a Firefox prototype right off the Soviet development base at Bilyarsk.

Gant resents the operation, because he is being, quite simply, blackmailed, in that he has been allowed to live on government land which now will be sold out from under him if he does not agree to the mission. The NATO Air Force attache (Thomas Hill) resents it, too, because Gant has no experience as a spy and, worse yet, is subject to post-traumatic stress disorder and may crack at any time. They use Gant for two reasons only: he speaks Russian like a Russian, and happens to be a perfect fit for the pressure suit worn by the MiG-31's prime test pilot, Lt. Col. Yuriy Voskov (Kai Wulff).

Training

Gant goes through several weeks of retraining, both in flying and in aerial combat, and briefings on his first required impersonation--as a corrupt businessman named Leon Sprague, known to be smuggling heroin into the Soviet Union. After his training is over, he is sent to London, where Aubrey gives him his final briefing on his objectives, and also hands him a one-way homing device disguised as a cheap transistor radio. What his handlers don't tell him, though, is that if anything compromises the mission, Gant will be left on his own.

Insertion

Gant lands at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, blusters his way through an unannounced customs search, and manages to leave the airport--with the "radio." He takes a taxi to his rooms at the Hotel Moscow, puts the "radio" into his pocket, and waits.

In the meantime, at KGB Moscow Center on Dzherzhinskiy Square, Colonel Kontarsky (Kenneth Colley) of the KGB finalizes his plans to safeguard the MiG-31 prior to its trials the next day in front of the Soviet First Secretary. He also orders his second-in-command, Dmitri Priabin (Oliver Cotton), to arrest some underground members at dawn, but not to move before then. Kontarskiy in fact knows all about the spy network funnelling information from Bilyarsk out of Russia--but even he does not know what the CIA and the SIS really have planned.

Change of identity

That night Gant walks out to the Krasnokholmskiy Bridge, under instructions to be there at precisely 10:30 Moscow time with the KGB shadowing him. There he meets the real Leon Sprague (George Orrison), plus his Moscow network escort, Pavel Upenskoy (Warren Clarke), and two of his confederates. Upenskoy orders Sprague to take Gant's cigar away from him and start smoking it--and then, before Gant's horrified eyes, whips out a pipe and clubs Sprague to death. He then demands that Gant surrender his false papers, which he plants on Sprague before throwing him into the Moscow River. The four men then race to the Paveletskaya Metro station, where Upenskoy hurriedly briefs Gant on his next impersonation: as Michael Lewis, American tourist registered at the Hotel Warsaw. The four then board a subway, though Gant nearly misses it, because his bad dream of the burning girl returns at just that moment.

The four ride the train to another station, but when they arrive, the KGB is all over it. A KGB plainnclothesman challenges Gant for identification, and Gant barely manages to convince him that he is who he says he is, and has to feign illness on account of the "rich food" at the Warsaw Hotel. Upenskoy, dissatisfied, sends the flustered Gant into a nearby men's room to "get yourself together." But another KGB plainclothesman (Eugene Lipinski) follows Gant into the restroom, challenges him again, and then says that his papers are not in order. The plainclothesman reaches for his gun and Gant reacts instinctively, ultimately killing him.

Upenskoy, rushing in at the last minute, is horrified. He now tells Gant to move quickly to the exit and angrily assures Gant this papers are, indeed, in order. Gant manages to leave the station, but only by cutting in line and acting like a clueless American. He, Upenskoy, and Upenskoy's colleagues barely manage to get to street level before whistles blow below, indicating that the KGB have found their dead detective.

Depart from Moscow

Upenskoy takes Gant to a warehouse belonging to a light-delivery service, where Upenskoy gives Gant yet another identity: that of Boris Glazunov, resident of the Mira Prospekt and employed as "driver's mate" to Upenskoy. The next morning, a telephone rings--just once--and Upenskoy tells Gant that they must leave at once, because "KGB assigned to the plane" are coming for Upenskoy. Upenskoy gives Gant a gun with orders not to use it unless absolutely necessary.

Kontarskiy, meanwhile, has word that Priabin has already picked up the real Boris Glazunov (Barrie Houghton) at his apartment. Therefore, the man in the van with Upenskoy is an impostor. Curious, Kontarskiy orders a KGB tail team not to arrest Upenskoy but to tail him at a distance.

Upenskoy and Gant manage to get through a checkpoint, where they know that they must "pose" for a photograph that will be sent to Moscow Center. Afterward, Upenskoy tells Gant that Boris Glazunov was picked up, and that Gant needs to realize that he is now a man of mystery. Upenskoy has decided to assume that the KGB will merely wait to see what develops as they try to identify Gant, who to them is simply someone who pretended to be a Russian driver's mate for some reason still unknown to them.

In the meantime, Sprague's former business associate identifies the body of Sprague but notes that he was badly beaten, almost as though his assailant wanted to obscure his identity, a thing that Police Inspector Aleksei Tortyev (Hugh Fraser) is very curious about indeed. Kontarskiy is also curious, and demands to know who the mystery man is with Upenskoy, and why an old man (Czeslaw Grocholski) arrested at the warehouse took a poison and the others are "holding out." Kontarskiy still refuses simply to arrest Upenskoy, because he wants every member of the spy network, no matter what--this although his officers now suspect that the mystery man is a foreign agent. Priabin is also present, and voices his suspicion that Boris Glaznov, now their prisoner, is totally ignorant of the identity of his substitute and perhaps even of the substitution.

Upenskoy reaches Gant's next rendezvous point and orders Gant to jump from the van while it is in motion as soon as they round a curve. Gant thus succeeds in getting onto the ground while Upenskoy leads the tail car away. Gant jogs down an incline and meets his next contact: a Dr. Semelovskiy (Ronald Lacey), project scientist assigned to the MiG-31 program. Semelovskiy hides Gant in his trunk and prepares to drive in to Bilyarsk.

At Moscow Center, Boris Glazunov, refusing to the end to talk (or perhaps, as Priabin suspects, not knowing what to say or even what the KGB wants), dies under torture. Kontarsky, monumentally chagrined, now orders Upenskoy's van stopped.

Penetration of Bilyarsk

Oblivious to any of this, Semelovskiy gets Gant inside the Bilyarsk compound (excusing his tardiness by pretending to have a dirty engine) and drives him to the scientists' quarters, where Gant now meets Dr. Pyotr Baranovich (Nigel Hawthorne) and his significant other, Natalya (Dimitra Arliss), who offer him his first meal of the day. Meanwhile, Upenskoy gets into a gunfight with the KGB tail team and manages to kill them--but not before they wound him. He crashes his van, abandons it, and sets out on foot, knowing that his life is forfeit.

Baranovich outfits Gant as a Soviet Air Police officer and briefs him on how to bluff his way through a security gate, and on the location of the hangar and its facilities. He also tells Gant that he knows that he will die after Gant escapes with the plane--but any resentment he might feel toward the British SIS for ordering him to sacrifice himself, pales before his resentment of the KGB for making that sacrifice necessary, and for denying him his freedom.

At Moscow Center, Aleksei Tortyev asks Priabin to do him a favor: to ask for an identification of the man who landed at Sheremetyevo Airport posing as the dead Sprague. Tortyev thinks that this man is a foreign agent who substituted himself for Sprague. The technicians then surprise Tortyev and Priabin by saying that the man at Sheremetyevo is the same as the man who posed as Boris Glazunov and got out of Moscow on the way to Bilyarsk!

Natalya brings word that the guards at the gate have been reinforced--and almost has a heart attack to see Gant outfitted as a Soviet Air Policeman. Baranovich reveals more dire information: that the program has not merely one prototype, but two, and Baranovich intends to sacrifice himself by destroying the second prototype. Gant must, therefore, get the first prototype out of the hangar as soon as he hears the fire alarm. Baranovich also briefs Gant on the directions that he must fly in, and the Firefox' weapons (four air-to-air missiles, two 50-millimeter cannons, and two flak layers, called "rearward defense pods" or "drone tail units") and thought-activated control systems--but also says that in order to work it, he must "think in Russian" and not try to think in English and translate.

Dmitri and Tortyev continue to discuss their lead. Tortyev then suggests that Dmitri look, not for a seasoned spy, but for "a young fit man with brains"--i.e., an astronaut or a pilot. Dmitri agrees and commences a systematic search of their thousands of files on astronauts, Air Force pilots, etc.

Gant manages to get inside the security gate and even takes it on himself to order an extra K-9 patrol to search the forest bordering the fence. He then walks through the hangar and sees the Firefox for the first time. A colonel (actually Kontarsky, though neither man knows the other) accosts him, and Gant apprizes him of his orders to the K-9 unit to search the forest. Gant then moves to the pilot's dressing room, and waits there for Voskov, whom he knocks senseless, binds, gags, and stuffs into a locker, having decided not to kill him because he, Voskov, "didn't do anything." Gant then goes into the showers and waits, at one point having to demand that he not be disturbed when other security personnel challenge him for identification. Gant is, of course, now impersonating Voskov. (Kontarsky has in fact realized that his mystery man has penetrated the installation and ordered a search.)

Take-off

Back at Moscow Center, Priabin has now identified Gant from the pilot archive. He warns Kontarsky, who then orders the arrest of Baranovich and the others--but just then the fire alarm rings, because Baranovich and Semelovsky have started the fire that they hope will destroy the second prototype. The fire is put out before it can do any such damage. Semelovsky is shot down at once, and Baranovich mnanages to get off one round with an automatic before he and Natalya are also gunned down. The last thing that Baranovich sees, however, is a black pressure-suited figure making its way to the first prototype.

That figure is Gant, who, like a man knowing what he is doing, walks over to the waiting plane, climbs aboard, hooks up, and starts going through a very accelerated pre-flight checklist. Someone challenges him for identification, and Gant first waves him off, and then, with a hand over the man's face, throws him off the small ladder leading to the cockpit. Gant hurriedly completes his checklist--but when he raises his visor, Kontarsky recognizes him at once and orders the doors shut. Too late--Gant starts the engines and taxis out of the hangar at high speed. As the First Secretary's car arrives, Gant taxis to the end of the runway, and then takes off. Upenskoy watches Gant fly overhead and then, with the K-9 patrols ready to apprehend him, shoots himself.

Misdirection

Gant first makes a deliberate close pass at an Aeroflot Ilyushin-model airliner (apparently a close copy of the Boeing 727). He then proceeds to dictate a cockpit monologue--which turns into a dialogue with the First Secretary (Stefan Schnabel), who tries to persuade Gant to turn back and surrender, which Gant will not do. Gant finishes his conversation and then turns eastward, toward the Ural chain. The Soviet chiefs of staff, meanwhile, scramble all their air assets on the northern and southern borders and alert the Red Banner Fleets Northern and Southern. And in a NATO war room, Aubrey and Buckholz realize, with great joy, that Gant has achieved liftoff.

First Battles

Gant reaches the Urals, and then makes his first mistake: impelled by insatiable curiosity, he test-flies the Firefox at supersonic speeds, seeking to test the power of the plane and its Terrain-Following Radar system. This allows the Soviets to realize that he has misled them, as the Air Force chief-of-staff, General Vladimirov, has already realized, knowing that Gant was simply too good to blunder into an Aeroflot's flight path by accident. Vladimirov then orders an elaborate plan to trap Gant at the northern end of the Urals, over the Gulf of Kara. The Soviets think they have succeeded when they detect explosions over the Gulf (and so do Aubrey and Buckholz), but in fact Gant has merely tricked the Soviets into downing one of their own planes, using the thought-controlled arsenal for the first time, and to good effect.

But Gant wastes his advantage by overflying an ELINT trawler. Vladimirov now sets up an ambush with a Soviet guided-missile cruiser--but Gant defeats that ambush, too, destroying two MiL-24 Hind helicopter gunships, knocking out two missiles with one of his flak layers, and simply outracing two more missiles until they fall into the sea.

Voskov, now recovered, takes a final briefing from the First Secretary before taking off after Gant. Word comes that Gant has defeated the Russians yet again, and now Vladimirov plans to intercept Gant just short of the polar ice pack.

Refueling

Gant now has another problem: he is running out of fuel, though he at least knows where his refueling point will be, since the homing device activated before he engaged the cruiser.Gant gains altitude and proceeds to glide in--and barely makes it to an ice floe before a US Navy Ohio-class submarine breaks through it. That, then, is his refueling point. He lands on the floe and taxis to the submarine, whose crew proceed to refuel him and replace the two missiles he has used.

Two Hinds make radar contact with the Americans and fly in to investigate. The Americans hurriedly finish the refueling and rearmament, steam a runway, and see Gant off before they then set up a mock weather station for the Soviets to reconnoiter. But what they don't know is that Vladimirov, loudly insistent, has prevailed upon his colleagues to send the second MiG after the radar contact.

Final battle

And so, after Gant takes off, he finds himself having to avoid two missiles that seemed to come out of nowhere--and then spots the second Firefox in his mirror. The two aircraft then get into a dogfight, using missiles and cannon and trying to fly a slalom race through ice canyons. At one point, Gant goes into a flat tailspin and barely manages to pull out of it--and Voskov, out of respect, salutes Gant one last time before dropping in behind Gant. Voskov is by now out of missiles and tries to shoot Gant down with his 50-millimeters. Gant, having to remind himself to "think in Russian," manages to introduce one final order: to lay flak. Voskov's plane sucks the flak in through its jet intakes, and blows up. Gant, relieved, sets a course for the nearest NATO base in Western Europe.

Cast

The United States Navy

  • Michael Currie as Captain Seerbacker, commanding an unnamed US ballistic-missile submarine
  • James Staley as Lt. Cmdr. Fleischer, his executive officer
  • John Ratzenberger as MCPO Peck, his chief-of-the-boat

The Secret Intelligence Service of the United Kingdom

  • Freddie Jones as Kenneth Aubrey, chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

  • Stefan Schnabel as (presumably) Leonid Brezhnev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (never specifically identified)
  • The Soviet Army Air Forces:
    • Alan Tilvern as Kutuzov, Chief Air Marshal
    • Klaus Löwitsch as General Vladimirov, officer-in-charge of trying to stop Gant from escaping
    • Kai Wulff as Lt. Col. Yuriy Voskov, chief test pilot
  • The Committee for State Security
    • Wolf Kahler as Yuriy Andropov, Chairman
    • Kenneth Colley as Col. Kontarsky, officer-in-charge of security for the MiG-31 development project
      • Oliver Cotton as Lt. Col. Dmitri Priabin, his second-in-command
      • Eugene Lipinski as a KGB agent who challenges Gant and gets himself killed for his trouble
  • The Moscow Militia (i.e., police):
    • Hugh Fraser as Chief Inspector Aleksei Tortyev, investigating the murder of Leon Sprague

The Anti-Soviet resistance:

  • Nigel Hawthorne as Dr. Pyotr Baranovich, chief project scientist for the MiG-31
    • Dmitra Arliss as Natalya, his significant other and assistant chief project scientist
    • Ronald Lacey as Semelovskiy, another project scientist
  • Warren Clarke as Pavel Upenskoy, a delivery-van driver
    • Barrie Houghton as Boris Glazunov, his regular driver's mate, for whom Gant is substituted to get him out of Moscow
    • Czeslaw Grocholski as an old man who ultimately commits suicide to avoid interrogation-under-torture
    • George Orrison as Leon Sprague, an American businessman whose identity Gant steals to get into Russia

Spoilers end here.


Themes

The Cold War

The Cold War is the foremost theme, as is the long-held suspicion that the Soviet Union was quite capable of developing advanced weapons. In point of fact, the Soviet Union did develop what might best be called a preponderance of familiar weapons. But in 1976, with the defection of Lieutenant Viktor Belenko at the controls of his MiG-25 Foxbat, a dedicated interceptor, the United States learned that the Soviets, while clever in the use of the technology that they commanded, were scarcely capable of developing advanced weapons. This might have inspired overconfidence and led the Defense Department under President James Earl Carter to announce, rather rashly, their intention to develop Stealth weapons. The fictive Firefox is the ultimate stealth weapon—generating no radar return even when extremely close at hand—and is also faster, and has a higher combat ceiling, than any aircraft that the Soviet Union (or the United States, for that matter) ever designed and developed.

By way of explanation of how the Soviets could develop such an aircraft, at least a generation ahead of the Americans, Stefan Schnabel's First Secretary tells his air chief marshal that


the Americans are simply paying the price for too many years of softness—paying with an act of desperation, such as this one...They know the potential of this aircraft; they know what it means. I would imagine that, had our positions been reversed, we might have acted similarly.

The character is correct: the Soviets did attempt to act similarly, and their successors, the leaders of the Russian Federation (whose current chief is a former KGB apparatchik), continue to do so at the time of this writing (July 14, 2010). However, the film also illustrates the innate Russian paranoid ideation about being invaded, in that Air Chief Marshal Kutuzov expresses his suspicion that


this could all be an elaborate bluff by the Americans to distract us from looking to the north, while this single aircraft attempts to escape to the south.

Furthermore, Barron[1] points out that the MiG-25 (which Thomas used as his inspiration) was very well-designed, given the limitations of Soviet technology. It was also desgined for a specific mission: to intercept B-70 bombers. Congress canceled the B-70 program, but the MiG-25 remained (and was redesigned to become a two-seater, which is the actual MiG-31).

The only true flaw in this film, regarding the notion that the Soviets could so outpace the West in weapons development, is that it specified no time frame. It does suggest that Firefox was three years in the making, and Aubrey gives this indication of how complacent the West had become:


When the first rumors began to filter out of the Soviet Union some three years ago, our theoretical weapons strategists stood before NATO command to explain, with much confidence, that it would take the Soviets a minimum of ten years to develop a Mach 5 aircraft with thought-controlled weapons systems. I stand before you today to explain, with much regret, that they were wrong.

True enough, the Soviets could never have built anything like Firefox in the year of the film's release, let alone the novel's release. But that does not mean that the Soviets would not be capable of building an aircraft like Firefox today, did the Soviet Union still exist. The world perhaps has Ronald Reagan to thank that no such project as Project Firefox ever began, much less came to fruition.

In addition, producer and director Clint Eastwood wished to illustrate the reason for the Cold War, and the evil nature of the "evil empire," the characterization given the USSR by then-President Ronald Reagan. The scenes involving the customs search, the walk to the bridge, Gant and the dissidents evading the KGB in the Metro station, the no-knock arrest and ultimate beating death of Boris Glazunov, and especially the testimonies and ultimate deaths of Upenskoy and Baranovich provide ample evidence.

Dealing with shell shock and self-doubt

Eastwood's use of the subplot involving Mitchell Gant's post-traumatic stress disorder, and its manifestation at unpredictable times, may have begun as a plot device to excuse a disastrous incident (i.e., Gant killing the agent in the restroom of the Metro station) and a near-disaster at the Bilyarsk base (i.e., almost failing to escape with the aircraft when the base personnel are distracted with the execution of Baranovich, Natalya, and Semelovsky). This theme could have been developed much more than it actually was. (Rumors have it that Eastwood blamed the budget overruns for the special effects for the compromises in quality in other aspects of the film, and swore never to produce and/or direct a special-effects film ever again. But perhaps Eastwood ought to have laid the blame with screenwriter Lasker, who neglected to expand upon Thomas' original material as much as he might have.)

Nevertheless, Mitchell Gant is a typical Clint Eastwood hero—a man wrestling with inner demons and who learns to conquer them in order to do the job at hand. Furthermore, Gant does develop signficantly as a man, in that his personal demon—the memory of the burning girl—pales in comparison, not only to the job he has to do, but also to the sacrifices that Pavel Upenskoy and Drs. Baranovich, Natalya, and Semelovskiy are willing to make. Baranovich impresses Gant the most, willing as he is to give Gant a successful send-off knowing that he will surely die afterward, if not in the process.


Mr. Gant, you are an American. You are a free man. I am not. There is a difference. If I resent the men in London, then that is a small thing compared to my resentment of the KGB.

Furthermore, Gant is a metaphor for the West itself. Firefox is set in a world that includes a West monumentally consumed with collective self-doubt, and doubt even about its proper place in the world. For reasons having to do with proper narrative economy, Craig Thomas never explores this as he might, because he creates no character who would be fully in touch with the kind of collective self-doubt that might cause voters to elect governments, in the USA and the UK, that would allow the West to come to the pass of having to steal a major prototype from the Soviet Union, instead of worrying about the Soviets stealing an American or British prototype. In short, Thomas did not bother to write in an analog of the late Jack Anderson, or the present-day Maureen Dowd, E. J. Dionne, or Anthony Lewis—and perhaps Thomas could never have imagined a Markos Moulitsas. Instead, all of Thomas' characters are drawn from the ranks of "those who know what needs to be done," and the settings take place either in Gant's Alaskan wilderness retreat, various training bases, the hotel in which Aubrey gives Gant his final briefing—and the Moscow and Bilyarsk sets and every set in between. In short, Firefox takes place on the battlefield or in the training facility, and not on the roiling college campus or in the liberal coffee shop.

And thus Gant himself must be the sole metaphor for an American, or other Westerner, who wonders whether the Cold War was worth fighting. Gant is uniquely qualified for this: shot down over Vietnam and taken prisoner, he witnesses the horrific death of an underage civilian in the course of his rescue. He spends years running away from this memory, feeling that he cannot possibly justify his own continued existence, if such a death was required to ensure its continuance. Gant must get past this attitude, just as the West must turn aside from the attitude of self-flagellation that pervades it today.

And that the Soviets know this is made obvious. The First Secretary, of course, highlights American softness. Their problem is that they think that all Americans are soft. For example, the First Secretary sarcastically says,


Mister Gant, as you will be aware, I am not interested in the life of one rogue pilot with a poor health record.

Such arrogance will, of course, cost the Soviets dearly by film's end. The reason: the only officer to appreciate fully that Gant is a much better pilot than anyone is giving him credit for is Vladimirov, who first realizes, to his regret, that he himself underestimated Gant with his first stratagem. Vladimirov spends the rest of the film playing a desperate game of catch-up, which he ultimately loses.

Feasibility

Firefox as an aircraft

Terminology

The Soviet Union actually did build a MiG-31, but it was not such an otherworldly craft at this. This aircraft, codenamed "Foxhound," was an updated version of the MiG-25 Foxbat.[2]

Airworthiness

The hypersonic Firefox has a striking resemblance to the North American XB-70 Valkyrie, albeit scaled down to a fighter. The elevation views of Firefox resembled those of the American F-15 Eagle, but the plan reveals a delta-wing configuration with a pair of forward canards. Warner Brothers built nine models of the Firefox to various scales. Two of these, which were radio-controlled scale models, were actually airworthy, though no one attempted to build or fly a Firefox model at supersonic speeds.[2] The actual airworthiness of the Firefox airframe design was initially a matter of no small controversy—but the commercial availability of a radio-controlled scale model settles all doubt that such an aircraft would have been not only airworthy, but at least as maneuverable as it was depicted in the film.[3]

Stealth technology

Firefox was, in theory, the Soviets' only attempt at developing a stealth weapon. The actual theory of stealth weaponry is to use an airframe with an absorptive surface and a shape designed to reflect as few radio waves as possible. But Firefox appears to use a highly sophisticated radar jamming system that somehow gives Firefox absolutely no radar signature. That would probably have been beyond even an American aerospace contractor at the time, or even today.

Hypersonic flight

Firefox would also have been the first hypersonic aircraft. Such an aircraft would almost certainly have required a superconducting ramjet or SCRAMjet engine. Such engines are only now under test by NASA and were not even contemplated in 1982--and almost certainly, the Soviets could never have developed such an engine. Their previous attempt to develop a super-fast rocket engine, for the MiG-25, resulted in an engine that could at best propel the aircraft at Mach 3.2, at the cost of the total wrecking of those engines, requiring replacement.[1]

Moreover, if Firefox did fly at hypersonic speeds, it would leave no sound trace at all. Yet the depiction, including the special effects, are more consistent with ordinary supersonic flight, with its sonic-boom effect, not to mention the compromise of Gant's position when he foolishly test-flies the Firefox at supersonic speeds while in a region that he had been told would be thick with listening posts.

Weapons and defense

Firefox's weapons were conventional enough: four air-to-air missiles, two 50-millimeter cannons, and two flak layers of undetermined type. In fact, the missiles are described as compatible, and thus interchangeable, with those carried by the MiG-25 Foxbat. Since the story suggests that the same design bureau designed both aircraft, such a substitution is feasible.

Firefox's main defense, aside from the flak layers, is its unrivaled stealth capability and tremendous speed. In fact, MiG-25 missiles would probably be inferior to Firefox missiles, for this reason: according to Barron[1], the combat ceiling of a MiG-25's missiles is 27,000 meters, and the combat ceiling of the Firefox would be nearly 33,000 meters.

On one occasion, a guided-missile cruiser fires four heat-seeking missiles at Firefox. Gant destroys two by laying flak and simply outruns the other two, which lack the speed to catch Firefox in a tail chase. Barron[1] reports that Viktor Belenko, the Soviet pilot who escaped with his MiG-25, told the Central Intelligence Agency that a MiG-25 would not be able to intercept an SR-71 Blackbird recon plane (maximum speed: Mach 3) for the same reason: its ceiling was higher than the combat ceilings of the MiG-25 and its missiles, and the missiles lacked the speed to catch an SR-71 in a tail chase (and lacked the guidance capability to compensate for a high closing speed if fired head-on).

Thought-controlled weapons

Firefox also carried what would best be described as an Electroencephalographic Decision Estimate system for the arming, targeting, and deployment of its weapons. Visual Decision Estimate systems are now under development, designed to read a pilot's iris contractions and eye movements in order to determine which target to shoot at and when to shoot. But no contractor, as far as is known, is currently working on an Electroencephalographic Decision Estimate system. (The description in the film of "sensors in [the pilot's] helmet" can only refer to an electroencephalogram.) However, scientists experimenting with monkeys were first able to train one to operate a candy dispenser with its thoughts alone, after first training it to move a triggering lever while recording an EEG trace, and then setting the dispenser to operate in response to the EEG impressions alone, while disconnecting the lever. (In fact, the subject learned quickly that the dispenser was operating before it had the chance to touch the lever, and thereafter it left off moving the lever and grew accustomed to triggering the dispenser by merely making a decision.) More recently, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh trained a monkey to operate a simple crane with its thoughts alone. Last month, that same team trained their monkey to operate an even more sophisticated crane with its thoughts, and perform tasks as complex as retrieving an object with this crane.[4] More recently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced their intention to test human-worthy prosthetic limbs designed to integrate fully with the patient's brain.[5] The interface involved is actually a physical connection of a microprocessor array with the central nervous system, but a noninvasive interface, involving a helmet rigged to take a continuous EEG, would also be suitable to control a prosthetic limb—or the weapons aboard a high-performance fighter-interceptor.

Thus the concept of a "thought-controlled arsenal," while clearly ahead of its time in 1982, is well within the realm of possibility today. Such a system would indeed grant its pilot/operator a 3 to 5 second reaction-time advantage over any opponent not similarly equipped. And, as is depicted in the film, the pilot would not need to press a button. He would need merely to form a thought, in the form of a command, and instantly activate a monitor, select a missile and its target, and fire that missile in less time than the pilot would take to utter the phrase "Fox One" or any similar tactical catch-phrase when pressing a firing switch today. Nor would a designer necessarily have to limit an EDE system to fire-control alone; he could also link the engine throttles, flight controls, and autopilot to the EDE system, thus making the entire aircraft an extension of the pilot in every sense of the word.

Whether the pilot would necessarily have to think in his accustomed language is an open question. One could as easily train a pilot to visualize pictographic symbols that could substitute for natural-language commands. In that manner the EDE system would be instantly usable, with no required pilot-specific adaptation, by any pilot, no matter what language he spoke. That Clint Eastwood's character was required to "think in Russian" was merely a plot device, though it was perhaps used to better effect in the motion picture than in the novel. (Gant tries to think in English to give the order to lay flak, and the system stubbornly refuses to respond until Gant remembers Baranovich's advice to him—just in time.) However, the EDE system could also have a deliberate feature requiring pilot-specific interpretation, in order to secure the aircraft against theft. But that would have created an untenable situation for Gant, because Voskov, the test pilot, would be the only man alive who could have flown either prototype.

A delicate intelligence operation

Craig Thomas, the original author, obviously theorized that a large-enough organization would be slow to realize that a major penetration was under way, and would also be overconfident and careless. Many people say that this was the exact posture of the United States intelligence apparatus on the occasion of the September 11, 2001 attacks.


Remember that you are playing on their only real weakness. Because of its sheer size, the KGB is sometimes slow to awaken. It is like a monster—if you walk by it quietly enough, it will only lift an eyelid and sniff at you. But if you awaken it...!

Gant succeeds because the police do not regularly communicate with the KGB (which is why they do not realize until far too late that the man who flew into Sheremetyevo Airport as "Leon Sprague" is the same man who departed Moscow as "Boris Glazunov" the next morning), and also because Kontarsky, his principal opponent on the ground, is determined to round up everyone himself and does not take definitive action until suddenly Gant is taxiing the Firefox out of the hangar faster than he can get the door shut on him. As strange as Gant's success might seem, one can never forget the success that nineteen Arab terrorists had in killing 3000 people in four airliners, seven commercial buildings, and the very headquarters of the US Department of Defense. (That they failed to destroy the Capitol or perhaps the White House is only because a group of passengers sacrificed themselves in an attempt to re-commandeer their own flight when they knew that it had been hijacked and was on a deadly errand.)

Pavel Upenskoy succeeds in delivering Gant to Bilyarsk because he is as ruthless as any Arab terrorist has been shown to be, quite willing to kill a colleague when called for, and in the end, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Indeed his ruthlessness is a match for that of Kontarsky, the more remarkable because he is a civilian. Gant perhaps demonstrates a similar ruthlessness: he orders a K-9 patrol in the very area of the forest where Upenskoy is likely to be skulking about and trying to stay ahead of the authorities, knowing that he might thereby be the instrument of Upenskoy's death.

Baranovich also demonstrates a willingness to lay down his life in order to ensure freedom for an entire world—and also an almost Quixotic desire to take down as many of his enemies as he can on the occasion of his inevitable death. While he is no Samson, he does succeed in his ultimate aim: getting Gant aboard Firefox so that Gant can steal it.

Novel v. film

The film and the novel do differ in a number of minor points. Boris Glazunov is beaten to death by two interrogators instead of one, and originally Gant does kill Voskov, only to face a second prototype flown by Voskov's younger counterpart, a Lieutenant Tretsov. Obviously Alex Lasker, who wrote the script, sought to cut down on the excessive plethora of characters. Lasker also cut out a scene in which Gant's refueling stop on the ice floe is rammed, and Captain Seerbacker's crew must hack a runway out of a rille that the collision forms in the ice. That aside, Lasker follows Thomas' prose word-for-word except for some minor corrections in the interest of believability, perhaps reflecting knowledge that Thomas might not have had when he wrote the novel.

According to the fan site, the publisher of the novel originally illustrated its cover with a drawing of a MiG-25, but subsequently changed the cover art to be in keeping with the design that the Warner Brothers art department and special-effects shop invented for the film.[2]

Errors

The correct title of what was once the most powerful office in the Soviet Union was General Secretary of the Communist Party, not First Secretary.

Awards

The Firefox film won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for its year.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Barron J, MiG Pilot: The Final Escape of Lieutenant Belenko, New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 MiG-31 Firefox Online Resource, 2001-2010. <http://thinkinrussian.org/index.cfm>
  3. RCPowers MiG-31 Firefox model. Has an embedded video of a demonstration flight.
  4. Riddle W, "Monkey Mind Control Evolves with Elaborate New Robotic Arm", Switched.com, 4 June 2010. Accessed 13 July 2010. <http://www.switched.com/2010/06/04/monkey-mind-control-evolves-with-elaborate-new-robotic-arm/>
  5. Drummond K, "Human trials next for DARPA's mind-controlled artificial arm," Wired, 15 July 2010. <http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/07/human-trials-ahead-for-darpas-mind-controlled-artificial-arm/>
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