Thursday 14 February 2013

Top 100 Disaster Movies: By Dawn's Early Light

By Dawn's Early Light (1990)

If I were to make a nuclear war film, I would call it Zugzwang. This is because I am more intellectual than you. In the game of chess (oh yes, I'm going there), there will occasionally be times where one player cannot possibly do anything but harm their position but are nevertheless compelled to make a move. Having to make a move although it will be ultimately disadvantageous to you seems to me to be the defining quality of any nuclear conflict.

During the breakup of the Soviet Union, a rogue group of separatists have gotten hold of a nuclear missile and with some malice, launched it from a NATO base in Turkey towards the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. This sets all the Soviet-era nuclear response protocols - some of them completely automated, mind you - into action, meaning that there is an immediate and unstoppable retaliatory response on targets in the United States. The American President, who for some reason is Martin Landau, thought that the world was well and truly past all of this shit and is forced into taking countermeasures when an atomic bomb explodes in Washington.

During his subsequent flight out of the danger area, another bomb explodes too close to the helicopter, causing it to crash and blinding the President. With the commander-in-chief presumed dead, the American military assume control of the situation, cunningly finding the country's most old-fashioned and hawkish gun-totin', red-hatin' elected representative to assume political control and give full legitimacy to Rip Torn's view that the best thing to do now would be to bomb the entire USSR out of physical existence.

The President, found in a wood and taken to a rescue centre, must now desperately try and resume control of the situation by telephone alone, before everything is lost. Ultimately he manages to win over a hard-bitten military commander, played by James Earl Jones, whose airborn military control centre is flown into Air Force One before any really big buttons can be pressed.

James Earl Jones in By Dawn's Early Light: a definite candidate for any no fly lists.

I thought a lot about my wretched history of dismal defeats on the chessboard as I watched By Dawn's Early Light. It is a chilling reminder of the kind of counter-intuitive moves born out of nothing more than political and military expediency that have to be taken in extremis, as well as a critique of the dangers of intransigence. But mainly, I thought about how James Earl Jones was also on the B52 bomber that sneaks through Soviet defences to drop its payload in the film Doctor Strangelove. What with that, this and Darth Vader, it's a wonder that anyone allows the man to leave the ground at all, so bleak are the consequences of his being at altitude.

By Dawn's Early Light is an arresting watch and one which is still relevant over twenty years later. I give it SEVEN out of ten disaster points.

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