Review: By Dawn's Early Light (1990)

Revisiting the last of the Cold War nuclear war movies.

Pilots Moreau (Rebecca De Mornay) and Cassidy (Powers Boothe) in a still from the movie.

The Cold War and the ever-looming threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union inspired many works of its time. These included films that explored just how a nuclear war might begin with such classic 1960s films as Stanley Kubrick's dark comedy Dr. Strangelove and the more serious Fail Safe. Coming at the tail end of the Cold War in 1990 between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the Soviet Union, HBO's By Dawn's Early Light was the last triumphant grasp of that sub-genre of Cold War storytelling as it told a gripping tale of potential Armageddon on the edge of peace.

Based on the 1983 novel Trinity's Child by William Prochnau, it's a movie made from the same mold as those aforementioned Cold War nightmares. A nuclear detonation over a Russian city triggers an immediate response from the Soviet Union, setting in motion nuclear strikes and counter-strikes. The movie follows numerous threads, one being the B-52 bomber Polar Bear One piloted by Major Cassidy (Powers Boothe) and Captain Moreau (Rebecca De Mornay) who are romantically involved as well as being co-pilots. Meanwhile in Washington is the American President (Martin Landau) who, from the moment a call from NORAD awakens him, tries to maintain control over a situation that very soon gets out of control. Flying above the country are the two Doomsday Planes, the Air Force's Looking Glass with the general callsign Alice (James Earl Jones) and the E-4B Nightwatch command plane. On board the latter is the Secretary of the Interior (Darren McGavin) who becomes acting President and faces a difficult choice thanks to conflicting military advisers including an admiral with the callsign Harpoon (Jeffrey DeMunn) and hawkish military adviser Colonel Fargo (Rip Torn).

It's a packed plot, to say the least. Credit goes to scriptwriter Bruce Gilbert who took Prochnau's novel and faithfully adapted it for the screen adding only the romance subplot which is perhaps the movie's biggest weakness as it adds little but distracting cheesy moments. Beyond that, however, Gilbert and director Jack Sholder graft a gripping tale built around the dilemmas many of them face and the debates about the merits (if one can call it that) of how nuclear war might play out. The film is rarely static though and features the occasional punch of action from nuclear explosions to Soviet fighters pursuing the B-52. Indeed, time has revealed thanks to declassified documents and interviews in books such as Garret Graff's Raven Rock that some of the concerns in the film about Continuity of Government, the line of presidential succession, and confusion over who was in charge of fighting such a war were legitimate The result is that whatever else can be said for the movie it is never dull.

It's also well-acted. Being made for TV and on a cable channel in cable's early days one might not have expected much. Instead, the movie features a top-notch cast. Boothe and De Mornay are believable as pilots of a B-52 though even the chemistry between them never overcomes the cheesiness of the romance subplot. Landau is well-suited as the President who finds himself in a remarkable situation with Landau playing not just dignity but also the internal debate and even frustration that goes with the job. Elsewhere, both Jones as Alice and DeMunn's Harpoon carry all of the presence a fine character actor can bring to the part as he deals with conflicting orders and trying to make the right decision. McGavin's acting president is an interesting character, a novice thrown in on the deep end who gives into the idea of fighting this most destructive conflict to “win it all.” Rip Torn's performance as the hawkish Colonel Fargo is especially neat and convincing, never dipping into potential Strangelove parody territory but as someone who is thinking about nuclear war like it's just another conflict. The cast is rounded off nicely by Peter MacNicol as the President's military aide, Nicolas Coster as the general in charge of NORAD, and the various actors playing the crews of the various aircraft in question. It's a solid cast which brings the story nicely to life on a human level.

The President is evacuated from the White House in a scene from the movie.

The film's production values, though low budget, are also solid. The sets, especially for NORAD and the White House in the film's opening half hour or so, are neither flashy or completely convincing with the White House situation room, in particular, being a casualty of the budget. On the other hand, the interiors of all the aircraft involved are quite convincing if not always entirely accurate portrayals of the real aircraft but they get the point across nicely. The special effects, all important here with brief depictions of nuclear devastation and aircraft in flight, are all solid for the pre-CGI era with the model shots looking particularly good. The score from composer Trevor Jones is sparse but effective while the aforementioned mention direction from Sholder makes the most of the film's budget to great effect.

By Dawn's Early Light ranks as being among the last great nuclear war films of the Cold War era. From a fully plotted, tense script to strong performances and solid if low budget production values, it was also perhaps the last movie to depict the outbreak of war between the US and the Soviet Union. While the production values and unfortunate romantic subplot keep it from the level of a Fail Safe, it remains worth a watch even now. For with the renewed tensions regarding nuclear weapons, perhaps its plot isn't as relegate to the past as we would like it to be.

Matthew Kresal
Matthew Kresal

Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first piece of fiction was published in the anthology Blood, Sweat, And Fears in 2016.

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Review: By Dawn's Early Light (1990)