Disaster Du Jour: By Dawn’s Early Light
Fear of a global thermonuclear war was very real in the 1980s. At the height of the cold war the Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at the US and NATO countries and we had just as many aimed at Russia and Warsaw Pact countries too. What people feared was that some minor conflict between the US and the USSR would spiral out of control and we’d fire our missiles at them and they at us which would essentially send what was left of mankind back to the stone age. Movies like The Day After (1983), Threads (1984) and Testament (1983) explored life post nuke war and the picture they painted weren’t nice ones.
But after the Soviet Union began to collapse and the cold war started to wind down in the late 1980s and early 90s fear of a nuclear war between “us and them” began to diminish. Surly with the United States and the Soviet Union on good terms a nuclear war would be out of the question. Right?
The main crux of the movie By Dawn’s Early Light (1990) was that no, in fact the possibility of a nuclear war was actually GREATER now that controls over these weapons were slowly being relaxed in the Soviet Union.
In By Dawn’s Early Light, separatists steal a missile from Russia and fire it back into the country from Turkey making it seem like that NATO was at fault. And an automatic Russian defense program fired off a few nukes of their own towards the US in retaliation for this strike.
What follows are the President of the US and the Russian Premier trying to deescalate the crisis, even as Washington DC it nuked, the President presumed killed and the Secretary of the Interior, the highest surviving member of the government left alive, takes the reigns of the country. And if the real President who is still alive wants to stop the war, the first question the new Secretary of the Interior President asks the military commanders is if we’re winning the war or losing it?
The other side of By Dawn’s Early Light is of the crew of a B-52 bomber on the way to deliver their payload of nukes to Russia, and them debating the merits of killing millions upon millions of people for a war that shouldn’t be happening in the first place. Eventually (spoiler alert) they turn their bomber around and head back home which causes the Russians to turn some of their bombers around too. And while the real President and the Premier see this as their chance to stop the war, the Secretary of the Interior President sees it as a sign of weakness and orders the B-52 shot down.
I originally saw By Dawn’s Early Light when it premiered on HBO and bought the VHS of the film when that came out a few years later. But honestly I hadn’t checked out the film in many years since a DVD version of it had only recently become available. While the special effects of the movie do look a bit dated, I did find that even 20+ years on the tension of By Dawn’s Early Light slowly builds and is maintained throughout the film right up until the very end.
Even though the movie is simply staged – there are really only a few sets in By Dawn’s Early Light and I think the whole story could easily be told as a stage play – I still found myself tensing up as the crew of the B-52 slowly comes to the realization that tonight’s flight isn’t a drill or the real President debating the Secretary of the Interior President on why it’s not a good idea to continue a war where everytime one side fires a shot tens of thousands of civilians die.
“Sir, do better next time sir.” Grade: A-.
While we’re probably not facing a situation like By Dawn’s Early Light in our immediate future, we still live in a world where there are thousands of nukes here in the US and thousands more overseas. And all it takes is one of those falling into the wrong hands to ruin everyone’s day. By Dawn’s Early Light is available on DVD.