By Dawn's Early Light Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

If we don't hit them hard and hit them now, then we'll never get a second chance!

In the 1980s and early 1990s, movie-going audiences were subjected to a number of films that fed on the nuclear holocaust paranoia that came with the escalating tensions between the East and West. Among the films released in this time period that dealt with the dangers of the nuclear arms race were some high-profile pics including "War Games", "The Day After", the better Brit production "Threads", and the "Mad Max" franchise, as well as some not-so-high-profile ones such as "Miracle Mile" (one of my favorites). In 1989, with the crash of Communism and the gradual thawing of the Cold War, the number of films dealing with this subject matter diminished to a trickle. One of the last films of the Cold War thriller era was an HBO production called "By Dawn's Early Light".

I will not act precipitously on the basis of some goddamn computer!
The goddamn computer will be destroyed in 21 minutes, along with everyone here.

Boasting high production values, okay special effects, and a surprisingly top-notch cast, BDEL is a thrilling drama that is your better-than-average made-for-TV movie. Based on "Trinity's Child", the novel by William Prochnau, the story begins with an unidentified nuclear missile launch from Turkey, a NATO country. The missile, apparently launched by Russian extremists, impacts within the Soviet border, detonating its nuclear payload. By reflex, the Soviet war machine gears up and launches a limited nuclear counterstrike at military targets within the United States.

What are you saying? Our relations couldn't be better.
I know it's hard to believe, but we are in the second stage of a Soviet counterforce strike.

The story then splits up disaster-movie-style into several fronts. The President (Oscar-award winning Martin Landau) is well aware that the conflict was not provoked by the United States and must decide whether or not to launch a retaliatory strike, and if so, of what magnitude. And though he is in communication with the Russian President, there are lingering doubts as to the sincerity of the reassurances that he is given by his counterpart on the other side of the world. In Spokane WA, Major Cassidy (Powers Boothe, the crooked Sheriff in "U-Turn") and Captain Moreau (Rebecca De Mornay, "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle"), who had just come from a romantic fling at a motel hours earlier, must now pilot a B-52 bomber into the heart of Russia and bomb the cities they have been assigned. Meanwhile, in the skies above the United States, an Air Force jet, dubbed "Looking Glass", under the command of 'Alice' (James Earl Jones, "This is CNN"), is acting as a communications hub for the quickly-unraveling nation. And when communication is lost with the President's helicopter during the evacuation of Washington D.C., the next presidential successor, the Secretary of the Interior (Darren McGavin, who recently played Frank's father on "Millennium"), is whisked aboard Air Force One, and immediately presented the dilemma of either escalating the war further (to ensure that the Soviets cannot launch further attacks if the Soviet President loses control of the situation), or to put a stop to the destruction, and possibly allowing the Soviets to take advantage of the weakened state of the United States' defenses.

To be blunt Mr. President, you now have three choices: Accept the damage and we will stop. Your second choice is to respond with a limited counterattack that will inflict on my nation a similar amount of damage. We will each lose in total six or nine million people in such an attack. This is acceptable to us. I realize that this is a tremendous price to pay and I know all to well the enormous political and military pressure you are under to take your third option: to respond massively. If this is your ultimate decision, I will have no choice but to respond with total nuclear commitment.

A battle of wills is then drawn between the camp that believes that they can win the war, championed by Colonel Fargo (Rip Torn, who has been type-cast into this kind of role), and the camp that believes that the only way to survive is to cease hostilities and trust that the other side will do the same. This ideological struggle is waged on all fronts of the story, from the claustrophobic confines of a B-52 cockpit, to the upper echelons of a rapidly-disintegrating government, and all the players must decide whether to follow orders, or to follow their conscience.

Turn the plane Major. That's what I want you to do. Turn the plane.

Jack Sholder, the director of BDEL, is no stranger to working wonders on a low-budget (he directed the sci-fi-action classic "The Hidden") and this movie shows what can be done with a topnotch script without the need for A-list players or expensive special effects. The pacing is excellent and the drama is riveting, keeping you at the edge of your seat until the very end, as the characters make decisions upon weighty issues on which millions of lives depend.

This is one worth combing the back of the rack for.

I think we have to face up to reality.
If we're lucky, reality is a firing squad.
And if we're unlucky?
Planet of the Apes, darling.

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