May 29, 2023

Litter Box Treasures: BY DAWN'S EARLY LIGHT (1990)

In Litter Box Treasures, we focus on a variety of older films which aren’t necessarily classics, but are well-worth discovering.

Starring Powers Boothe, Rebecca De Mornay, James Earl Jones, Darren McGavin, Martin Landau, Rip Torn. Directed by Jack Sholder. (100 min).


First-aired on HBO in 1990, By Dawn's Early Light was one of the last timely Cold War thrillers, and despite its made-for-cable-TV-origins, also one of the best. Similar in plot to the classic, Fail Safe, it's a great film that doesn't rely on heavy spectacle or visual effects. 

It's the present day and a renegade nuclear missile is launched and detonated inside the Soviet Union. Thinking it's a preemptive attack by NATO, the Soviets launch a counterstrike against the U.S., only to soon discover they were mistaken. Unable to call off the attack, the Soviet president contacts the U.S. president (Martin Landau), begging him either to retaliate with a strike which would result in an equal number of casualties, or not respond at all, two actions which could end the conflict then and there. 

Before he can make the decision to turn off this war, the President's helicopter crashes after a missile strike. The next man in succession is the Secretary of the Interior (Darren McGavin), who just happens to be a war-mongering loony. Despite the urging of nearly all those around him to take steps to cease hostilities, the new President wants to launch a massive nuclear attack because he’s convinced he can win a war that’s universally considered unwinnable, and is goaded by gung-ho General Fargo (Rip Torn). 

Meanwhile, NORAD is placed on full alert, scrambling their submarines and bombers. Much of the film centers on the bomber crew of Polar Bear One (led by Powers Boothe and Rebecca De Morney), who face a moral dilemma upon receiving their orders. As the bombers venture ever-closer to their fail-safe points, the crew of Polar Bear One begins to question whether or not to strike or turn the plane around.

"That's not a gift card, sir. Those are launch codes."
What By Dawn's Early Light lacks in visual spectacle (at least by modern Hollywood standards), is compensated by a smart script, sharply drawn characters and tight pacing. I don't know how much of the technical jargon is authentic, but it sounds like it is, and that's what's ultimately important. Jack Sholder (who also directed the cult classic, The Hidden) takes a well-distilled screenplay (based on William Prochnau's novel) and creates a suspenseful nail-biter that feels distressingly plausible.

Given its obvious budget limitations, the film comes up with ingenious ways to present apocalyptic horror without relying on spectacular visuals. We may never actually see a city decimated by a nuclear blast, but through the reactions of key characters, along with a few small-scale destruction sequences, the viewer is convinced the fate of the world is at stake.

The performances are uniformly outstanding. Powers Boothe (always an underrated actor) exudes authority and vulnerability in the lead role as Cassidy, the bomber's pilot. Rebecca De Morney is less effective as his lover/co-pilot, who's sometimes a bit too melodramatic. Darrin McGavin is his usual great self as the newly-appointed president, as is James Earl Jones, who must have felt just a bit of deja vu, being that he also appeared in the definitive Cold War commentary, Dr. Strangelove

By Dawn’s Early Light is a small winner all around, and one of the better made-for-TV thrillers ever produced. While the Cold War itself is a distant memory (for now), this remains a tense, unnerving film that doesn't deserve to be forgotten.

No comments: