This week’s pick is the HBO film By Dawn’s Early Light (1990), directed by Jack Sholder. The film stars Martin Landau, Powers Boothe, Rebecca De Mornay, James Earl Jones, Darren McGavin, Rip Torn, Jeffery DeMunn, Peter MacNicol, and Nicolas Coster.
By Dawn’s Early Light was based on the novel Trinity’s Child that depicts a full nuclear exchange between the U.S. and USSR. The film is set in 1991 as the Soviet Union is undergoing radical political change (when the film was produced, the Soviet Union was in fact beginning to collapse).
A group of Soviet brass launches a nuclear strike with a stolen missile against the Soviet city of Donetsk. U.S. forces track the trajectory of the missile from allied Turkey. This act makes the Soviet Première and Soviet forces think it was a surprise attack from the U.S. and NATO forces. The Soviets launch a retaliatory strike which threatens U.S. land based bombers and many key points of communication such as the NORAD facility, SAC headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, Washington D.C., and Andrews AFB in Maryland which is where the president would be evacuated from.
The U.S. president (Landau) receives a teletype communiqué from the Soviet president who informs him that a faction of renegade Soviet officers have stolen a nuclear weapon and executed this plan as a way to steer both countries towards nuclear war. The Soviet president is willing to accept a limited exchange that will inflict the same damage their missiles will have on U.S. targets. The second option is for both sides to inflict massive destruction with land based bombers, missiles, and subs. The U.S. president is moved to a secure bunker deep within the White House due to a missile, which will hit Andrews AFB within a matter of minutes.
At SAC headquarters, General Renning ‘Icarus’ (Coster) informs the president of the Soviet missiles that are inbound and the change in the alert status of DEFCON. General Renning informs the president that he is being conned by the Soviets and should authorize full release of U.S. nuclear capabilities in order to not be vulnerable in the exchange. General Renning urges this because in a matter of minutes, SAC and everyone there will be destroyed. Renning orders his naval attaché ‘Harpoon’ (DeMunn) to board the E-4 command plane that needs to be airborne in order to launch the remaining bombers if the chain of command is disrupted during the attack.
At the same time throughout the film, one of the side stories revolves around an affair between two Air Force pilots Major Cassidy (Boothe) and Captain Moreau (De Mornay). When they receive orders they believe to be a training exercise, their B-52 bomber is launched from a base in Washington State to fly towards its Fail Safe point to receive further instructions. When the bomber codenamed Polar Bear 1 is ordered to undertake “21 Zebra” (the systematic bombing of Soviet brass leadership bunkers), they struggle to make sense out of such an order that would only escalate hostilities due to a lack of leadership to end the war. They refuse to follow through with their orders and change the course of events in the entire war.
One of the best scenes in the film is the attack on Washington D.C. which was meant to hit Andrews AFB. A millisecond of brilliant white light comes through the windows of the president’s private office, followed by shattered glass from the force of the nuclear detonation. The president’s bunker sustains damage and communications are knocked out. The president’s EWO (Emergency War Orders) officer Sedgwick (MacNicol) convinces the president to leave Washington in order to maintain the proper chain of command.
At this time, the Chinese (who have made a pact with the U.S.) launch against the Soviets and the conflict escalates to a whole new level. As he makes his way to a more secure location, the president’s helicopter is taken down by a second detonation that destroys Andrews AFB. After learning the president’s helicopter is destroyed during the second strike, the military and FBI locate the Secretary of the Interior (McGavin) who was visiting a wild life preserve in Louisiana. The Secretary is now the presidential successor. The new president is then brought up to speed by Harpoon and the current state of the war.
The remainder of the film is trying to stop the war from escalating and consuming the rest of the world in nuclear Armageddon. The president is blinded and severely injured in the helicopter crash. He and his EWO are taken to a FEMA bunker in Maryland where he tries to convince ‘Alice’ (James Earl Jones) (commanding General of the Looking Glass plane) that the president elect is making decisions which will further destabilize U.S./Soviet relations and bring about the end of humanity. The film’s conclusion is spectacular in which many sacrifice themselves in order to end the hostilities before it’s too late.
By Dawn’s Early Light received tremendous praise from critics and from television ratings when it debuted in 1990. James Earl Jones was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Special. The FX company Matte World Digital won for Outstanding Achievement in Special Visual Effects. The entire cast is wonderful and they all deliver dynamite performances, especially McGavin, DeMunn and Rip Torn who plays Colonel Fargo, Condor’s (the presidential successor’s codename), Soviet capabilities expert who dismisses Harpoon’s more thorough knowledge of the Soviet’s true capabilities.
By Dawn’s Early Light is available on DVD through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.