“By Dawn’s Early Light” (1990)

“By Dawn’s Early Light” was the last film, prior to the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, to ask the hypothetical question: What would happen if nuclear war were to take place between the two superpowers? The year is 1991, and rogue members of the Russian military have managed to launch missiles targeting America. The first wave, amongst other locations, is headed toward Washington, D.C. From his command center, General Renning, played by Emmy winner Nicolas Coster (The Bay), is conveying a sense of urgency as he informs the President that the hit is imminent. He not only tells the President that he must retreat to safety, within a time frame of approximately twenty minutes, but that he has to launch a counterattack. The President, portrayed by Oscar winner Martin Landau (Ed Wood), is hesitant. He reminds the general that relations between the two countries have been good. What would be the rationale for the Soviets to launch such an attack? The President wants confirmation that missiles have actually been launched. He is distrusting of the computer system that has set the chain of events in motion. The President wants to communicate with the President of the Soviet Union, if at all possible, and hear directly from him, that such an attack has been authorized. Unfortunately, when the two men speak, the Soviet President confirms that missiles have been detonated, but that it was not because he gave the command to do so. The Soviet President offers several possible outcomes to the American President, none of which are very palatable. 

After the President is evacuated from the White House, his helicopter crashes. Amidst the chaos, there is no way to contact the President, nor Navy Lieutenant Commander Segwick played by Emmy winner Peter MacNicol (Ally McBeal), who was accompanying him. The President is assumed dead. In fact, because of other missile attacks throughout the country, many cabinet members and high ranking officials are deceased. The next in line for the presidency is Condor, the Secretary of the Interior, a role acted by Emmy  nominee Darren McGavin (Kolchak: The Night Stalker).  Once Condor is sworn in aboard Air Force One, certain members of the military suggest calm and to end hostilities between the warring nations. Harpoon, the representative from the Navy, played by Emmy nominee Jeffrey DeMunn (Citizen X), is one such individual. There are, however, others, like the hawkish Colonel Fargo, portrayed by Emmy winner Rip Torn (The Larry Sanders Show).  He is imploring the President to attack the Soviet Union. Fargo is attempting to instill fear in the President, suggesting that striking first is the only viable option. The suggestion is one that Condor is seriously considering.  

The movie has several divergent storylines, one of which begins in a motel room in Spokane, Washington. Major Cassidy, played by Emmy winner Powers Boothe (Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones), and Captain Moreau, a role acted by Rebecca De Mornay (Risky Business), are romantically involved. No one at the air force base they are stationed at are aware of their relationship. After an intimate evening, the two return back to base, and a short time later, an alert is sounded. They, along with the rest of their fellow pilots, are under the mistaken impression that it is just a drill. In fact, for a while, they remain having that mindset, until the situation begins to get all too real for all of the crew aboard the B-52 bomber they’re flying. In addition, there is an Air Force jet named ‘Looking Glass,’ under the command of Alice, portrayed by Oscar winner James Earl Jones (The Lion King).  The job of the jet is to monitor the situation, and wait for orders as to how it should proceed. The problem for Jones’s character is that he’s receiving one set of instructions from Condor, but also is contacted by someone else claiming to be the American President. Did the President survive his helicopter crash?  Which set of orders will ‘Looking Glass’ follow? What about the B-52 helmed by Major Cassidy? The express mission he was given was to drop bombs on Soviet cities. Will anyone survive? 

“By Dawn’s Early Light”  was directed by Jack Sholder (The Hidden). The teleplay, written by Oscar nominee Bruce Gilbert (On Golden Pond), was adapted from the novel “Trinity’s Child” written by William Prochnau. The novel was published on October 1, 1983 by the Putnam Publishing Group. The film aired on HBO on April 24, 1990; it was simultaneously shown at the Houston Film Festival. Parts action, drama, and, thriller, the television movie has a run time of 100 minutes. (As an aside: There are two distinct differences between the novel and the movie. The first, in the novel, the Soviet Union deliberately has launched an attack against the United States. Furthermore, Cassidy and Moreau are not in a romantic relationship).   

The production values for the movie make it appear as if it had a larger budget than it did. In contrast, the special effects are dated, but that should only hamper the enjoyment of the most jaded of viewers. The cast as a whole are uniformly excellent. Throughout the movie, which is well paced, the filmmakers added the right amount of tension to each scene, without going overboard, given the movie’s subject matter. Recommended for fans of the cast, and for those of you who like well executed suspense movies, that deal with what if, Cold War scenarios.                                         

About robbinsrealm

I was born in Smithtown, New York, and grew up, worked, and lived in various areas of Long Island before moving to Boca Raton, Florida where I now make my home. In addition to being an aspiring writer, I am also an English teacher. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s Degree in Education, both from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. In my spare time you will find me engrossed in books, watching movies, socializing with friends, or just staying active.
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5 Responses to “By Dawn’s Early Light” (1990)

  1. le0pard13 says:

    What timing. Rewatched this again just the other week, it’s one of my favorites. And while it’s not exactly in the same class of FAIL-SAFE or Dr. Strangelove, it has the power to equally fascinate and reconjure a certain kind of dread.

    Especially so for those of us old enough to have grown up through the Cold War, with the shadow of nuclear armageddon hanging over us. To say nothing of the various scenarios that could have brought it on us. Nice write-up, Jonathan. Well done.

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Funny, that you just watched it last week

      I agree with you, that it is not in the same class as the other films you mentioned, but it is nonetheless entertaining, and I really enjoyed watching it. The cast, I think, is what makes the film.

      Thank you as always for reading and commenting!

  2. filmmiasma says:

    Sounds interesting- I’ve never heard of it!

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