DIRECTOR: Jack Sholder
May Contain Spoilers!
By Dawn’s Early Light premiered on the May 19th 1990, 25 years ago last week. I can remember first watching this late on Saturday night in the early 1990’s and was taken aback then, as a teenager by the chilling tone, the seemingly realistic take of these scenarios in what was destined to become the last World War Three thriller to be made during The Cold War.
Beginning at just after 05:00 Zulu, the film take place over the a period of just eight hours in which, after being hit a ICBM, The U.S.S.R. launch a retaliatory strike on the U.S., wrongly believing that they have attacked them. It soon becomes clear that a dissident movement within the Soviet Union has launched the nuclear attack, leaving the Russian Premier to make a series of proposals to the American President, Martin Landau.
1, take the hit and call it a day. 2, retaliate and call it even or 3, all out nuclear war. This decision needs to be made within minutes as ICBM’s are on route and the military leaders on both sides are pressuring their leaders to a respond, with escalation being their primary options. The frightening part is that all makes sense…
And that’s your set up. Watch the film. If this isn ‘t one of the best, if not THE best World War Three film out to date then I don’t know what is. Dr. Strangelove (1964), WarGames (1983) and Crimson Tide (1995), yes, they’re all up there with the best but the simplicity and brevity of this story as well as the quality of the television production values and tremendous acting makes this an underrated and outstanding drama. Then to ice the cake we have Trevor Jones’ score, Jones’ also composing the music for Thirteen Days (2001), another marvellous entry into the genre, though Thirteen Days was the only TRUE story to be referenced so far, has produced a tense and moody score, adding that extra something to the already tight package.
The frightening aspect to re-watching this though so many years later and after the events of 9/11, are the similarities in the tone. Especially to Paul Greengrass’ United 93(2006), which like this film in the opening 30 minutes or so, takes place largely in control rooms. The reaction to the first nuclear detonation in the Soviet Union is chilling as the gravity of the unfolding catastrophe becomes clear and not dissimilar those of in United 93 which was lauded as being an incredibly accurate portrayal of the days events, and both feel that way.
This is a chilling clinical representation of how a nuclear war could unfold and how quickly the world could fall apart. But it is not a cold film. Granted, there is the sightly overwrought romance between our two leads, B-52 bomber pilots Powers Booth and Rebecca De Morney, both showing the films age, but at the heart of this cold, Cold War thriller in which many of the lead characters are only referred to by their code names such as “Condor” and “Alice”, the ethical debates come thick and fast as well as the issue of so many millions of people being lost so quickly.
It is organised chaos and a chilling reminder who ugly The Cold War could have become and how lucky we were that it didn’t come to this. 9/11 was the next step in this type of warfare and it is also a chilling fact that several times during this story including the final solution in order to stop the crisis is to use planes to “ram” or “take out” other aircraft. There is even a reference at one point to using commercial aircraft as suicide bombers to take out Soviet bombers.
An unfortunate reality of this kind of conflict but still interesting that this film so concisely ties up one war with the methods of how the next one would start. Just an observation of life mirroring art mirroring life?
But basically, if you haven’t seen it, watch it. A small time TV movie with just as much, if not more clout that so many big budget movies tackling this subject matter. But having said that I would also highly recommend all the films mentioned in this review and one more cold war TV movie, a British one this time, the 1984 Docudrama Threads. completely different to this film but an equally effectively look at why Oppenheimer’s work needs never to be used again.
Oh and the book which this is based upon is titled Trinity’s Child, in reference to the Trinity test in 1945, the first nuclear destination in which Oppenheimer realised his folly. Just though I say how I loved that title!