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That's Not Yours. Put It Back!
by Jon Schuller

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We are fascinated with movies about stealing something or robbing someplace. Literally hundreds of films have been made some based on true stories about an individual or a group of people who want to steal something. Maybe they're jewels or paintings or cars or statues or books or property or land or identity or drugs or patents or ideas or trade secrets or inventions or clothing or shoes. Maybe it's something with no value except the sentimental kind. Maybe it's big-time crime, like The Godfather. Maybe it's a personal story, with confidence tricksters as in Matchstick Men. The newest crimes at sea piracy are shown in the recent true story of Captain Phillips. You get the general idea by now, I'm sure. Maybe they get away with it, and sometimes, we secretly wish they do. Maybe they get caught and the full penalties of law are imposed. Maybe they escape but are eventually caught attempting to steal something else since they've gotten away with the first crime. No matter the object of the theft, movie audiences over the years have been challenged by film-makers with more and more complicated plots and endings. Some robbery films have been remade and updated, like The Italian Job, with new characters and locations. Some have been futuristic science fiction movies, like I, Robot, with human beings portrayed as the victims and machines doing the stealing. If the object of the theft is real or imagined we want to be thrilled and baffled as plots unwind and the action is continuous. Of course many robbery movies must have the requisite chase scene and (in a previous column) I've catalogued some of the best ever filmed. But there have been more than a few movies I know about in which the object of the theft is an airplane, mostly to use as a means to escape from the real theft. No, I'm talking about stealing an airplane because the plane itself is the object of the robbery. That film is 1982's Firefox.

The object to be stolen is a Russian MIG-31 Firefox, the most advanced fighter plane in the world. It has complete stealth characteristics, flies at Mach 6 (close to 5000 m.p.h.), and its weapons can be controlled by thought, configured inside the pilot's helmet. Craig Thomas authored the original book in 1977, using the then-real MIG-25, an advanced fighter jet for its time. For the movie a MIG-31 Firefox is created based on an advanced version of the American XB-70 Valkyrie, a large delta-wing supersonic bomber. But the movie version has more advanced features than its real-time counterpart and since it's inside Russia, the only way to analyze
it is to steal one.

A plot is laid out created by a joint United States/CIA- British/MI-6 team to infiltrate an agent into Russia just before the Firefox's maiden flight and return it to safety in Europe. A mere spy won't be enough. A senior pilot must be used, a combat- experienced veteran who not only knows the intricacies of flying supersonic aircraft, but must speak Russian as well. There is such a pilot, Major Mitchell Gant (Clint Eastwood), a Vietnam War vet and former POW who's living by himself in an isolated mountain retreat, still haunted by his war experiences. These visions can paralyze Gant and render him nearly catatonic and helpless until they disappear. He doesn't want to do any more flying, let alone having to steal a top-secret, heavily-guarded plane and evade an angry Russian Air Force which wants it back.
Somehow, Gant is persuaded to become part of the plot which will use him as an imitation American businessman who travels to Russia frequently where he will rendezvous with Russian Jewish dissidents three of whom are actual scientists - inside the secret base where the Firefox and its prototype twin are hangered. The omnipresent KGB somehow gets wind of the plot and sets up several traps to catch Gant and the dissenters before they get to the base. For the sake of moving the story along Gant is spirited into the Firefox base and gets suited up for flight. One of the men helping him is captured and tortured but dies without revealing any details of where the American pilot is or who the co-conspirators are. The Russians can't afford to eliminate the scientists as a contingent of political big-wigs, including a communist First Secretary, are enroute to observe the Firefox's maiden flight. It would not only be embarrassing if the plane disappeared, but the general and his staff in charge of the investigation would also dis- appear in proper KGB style. Gant has been told that a second prototype Firefox will be used as a diversion so he can steal the original. We see the scientists moving carefully inside the hangar under the watchful eyes of soldiers who've been told to expect trouble. Being a Jewish anything inside Russia in the 1980's was problematical at best, let alone being an engineer involved in an intricate, dangerous plot to steal a one-of-a-kind aircraft. At this point in the film I do not believe that any part of the story is too far-fetched, regardless of what the critics disliked about the movie. There have been many real-life tales about espionage that took many years to become public and when they were revealed,
many people discounted them as being too unbelievable to be real. Israel's Mossad capturing Adolf Eichman in the 1960's and spiriting him back to Israel for a very public trial. Russia planting agents inside America's Manhattan Project to steal atomic bomb secrets reads like a novel. Or: how British intelligence acquired a secret German Enigma coding machine and cracked their codes early on during World War II is the stuff of fiction although being quite factual.

Inside the pilots' locker room, as he is about to don a flying suit, Gant has one of his mental attacks and winds up slowly sliding to the floor, paralyzed with fear as once again his mind is filled with those horrible visions of Vietnam and his own captivity. Every second counts as the scientists start a diversionary fire inside the hangar to destroy the second prototype, to give Gant, who's recovered from his mental episode, time to climb into the cockpit and roll out the Firefox for take-off. The fire is discovered as the scientists are killed but Gant strolls unnoticed in his flight-suit into the confusion and is actually able to start the engines and taxi out of the hangar. What he doesn't realize is that the fire has been put out and the second plane is intact. He takes off thinking he will be unchallenged by any sort of pursuit because of the incredible speed attainable in the Firefox. The First Secretary arrives just in time to witness the mess and we can assume he isn't happy about the outcomes. All those uniforms are quaking with fear about their futures.

The flight plan is programmed into the on-board computer as Gant, his amazing flying skills now coming to use, creates a diversionary move to confuse what he knows will be a major Russian pursuit to stop him at all costs. The helmet he wears can transmit command-and-control messages to the computer simply by thinking in Russian. Today we can speak into our hand-held electronic devices for maps and other information. Mind-reading devices are still in the future I guess but in 1982 no one but a few scientific and literary visionaries saw everyday phones and computers that could fit in your pocket.

He diverts south for a while then heads north for a rendezvous with a U.S. nuclear submarine. We watch as the Russian bigwigs argue about how and where Gant will take the Firefox in order to evade pursuit and get out of Russian airspace. The First Secretary advocates a northern chase, while a general suggests that Gant is heading south towards Turkey or Greece. They get a break as Gant is flying supersonic over the ocean and is
observed by a Russian fishing trawler (renowned as intelligence gatherers wherever they "fished") which radios his position and direction: due north.

Gant successfully lands on a huge ice flow and taxis up to the waiting submarine where fuel is waiting. As the jet is loaded with gas Gant and the ship's captain discuss the evasive maneuvers both must take to avoid too much attention by the Russian Air Force. With some humorous back-and-forth the sub's captain gets his crew to steam-heat the ice into a runway of sorts and then disguise the sub's conning tower into an arctic "research project." Gant flies away at full military power up to altitude and top speed. Before he knows it he becomes aware that his plane's twin is in pursuit piloted by the Russian man Gant refused to kill back in the hangar's locker room. The irony isn't lost on us as Gant's fears of death and killing held him back from one last act.

The Russian pilot is Gant's equal in flying skills and has only one object in mind: destroy the Firefox at all costs. With machine guns blazing and missiles being fired Gant takes evasive actions high above and close to the earth, weaving in and out of glacial canyons then up into the sky at unimaginable speeds. The Russian keeps up with everything Gant tries until the American puts on his speed brakes and falls in behind his Russian pursuer. He remembers to think in Russian as a missile is launched from the rearward-facing pods on the Firefox and score a direct hit on the Russian. The prototype is destroyed and Gant sets a course for his eventual safe landing.

I've had a lifelong love of airplanes, their history and evolutions. Ten years ago my wife and I were at the 100th anniversary celebrations at Kitty Hawk, N.C. for the observance of the Wright Brothers first flight in their powered aircraft. I have many books about the history of flying and have watched lots of movies, old and new, that have anything to do with airplanes. Firefox was not a critical success in 1982 but again, that doesn't concern me. There are still secret airbases where experimental aircraft are being tested to their limits in the constant pursuit of speed and altitude. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in secret in 1947 and I have no doubt that similar events are happening today without fanfare or publicity. This is the sort of stuff that makes for great films and I believe that Firefox still reflects what can be done when scientists, designers and pilots, all with amazing skills, put together a program and build something once only seen by dreamers and writers.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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