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MAY - 2011
DOOMSDAY GUN
(1994)
GullCottage rating ***½  (on a scale of 1 - 5)

HBO Showcase/Griffin Productions
Dir. - Robert Young
Written by - Walter Bernstein and Lionel Chetwynd
Pro. - Adam Clapham
Dir. of Photography. - Ian Wilson
Music - Richard Harvey

Cast: Frank Langella, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey,
Tony Goldwyn, James Fox, Francesca Annis,
Michael Kitchen, Clive Owen

 

      In 1983 HBO became the first pay network to launch a film division with the production,  U.S. airing and Canadian theatrical release of the bio-pic THE TERRY FOX STORY.   Considered by some as little more than a glorified inspirational TV movie without commercials,  it was a minor endeavor but signaled the start of a production house destined to revolutionize a stale television industry long thought of as “second tier”.   Eventually becoming HBO Films, over the years it would produce such groundbreaking high quality fare as YOU DON’T KNOW JACK with Al Pacino, the origin of AIDS drama AND THE BAND PLAYED ON,  ANGELS IN AMERICA and CINEMA VERITE’  along with the mini-series BAND OF BROTHERS, GENERATION KILL and the recent MILDRED PIERCE.   It would also distribute theatrically (mostly through Picturehouse,  it’s joint venture with New Line Cinema)  AMERICAN SPLENDOR, IDLEWILD and Gus Van Sant’s controversial ELEPHANT - the company’s first Cannes Film Festival Palm D’Or winner.  Amongst a filmography of such high profile critical and popular darlings there are bound to be smaller scale, lesser known titles which undeservedly fade into forgotten obscurity.  One of the best of these “forgotten gems” is HBO’s 1994 fact based political thriller DOOMSDAY GUN.


     It says much that in a cast of heavyweights such as Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, James Fox, Tony Goldwyn, Francesca Annis and a young Clive Owen, the always impressive Frank Langella (FROST/NIXON) dominates the screen as true-life aerospace / weapons industrialist Gerald Bull.  Best known for the famous HARP (High Altitude Research Program) supergun designed to blast a payload through a mega-bore cannon barrel into space, the Canadian born Bull would eventually become a defense contractor in the employ of Saddam Hussein for who’s military he’d attempt creating the “Big Babylon” - a 2,100 ton super cannon 156 metres (512 ft.) in length, and with 1 metre bore (3.3 ft.) capable of firing a shell into orbit from whence it could drop on any target hundreds of miles away.  After Bull’s headline grabbing assassination by unknown assailants outside his suburban Brussels home (many believe it was the Israeli Mossad) numerous segments of the weapon in shipment were confiscated by British customs after the first Gulf War.  How Bull could manufacture then ship his in-development project without the knowledge (and possible collusion) of high ranking U.S. and British intelligence officials would set off a heated Noreiga-like inquest on both sides of the Atlantic, leading to questions directed at both former American President George Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. 

     If it all sounds like the plot outline for a Len Deighton / Tom Clancy-like super thriller there's reason.  The actual incidents inspired numerous fictitious retellings including TOM CLANCY’S SPLINTER CELL and THE FIST OF GOD by Frederick Forsyth (THE DAY OF THE JACKAL).  Both novels use Project Babylon as their backdrops.  So do the popular video games DESERT STRIKE: RETURN TO THE GULF and CONFLICT: DESERT STORM II.  And this is one of the unexpected strengths of DOOMSDAY GUN.  Rather than unspool it’s story in dry docu-drama fashion director Roger Young (FIERCE CREATURES, JANE EYRE) treats it as a brisk straight-up thriller, albeit a deadly serious one,  and not a boffo sock ’em, car-chase-and-snapped-wrists Jason Bourne escapade.  More reminiscent of English political thrillers of the old school, we catch echoes of Alec Guiness in John Le’Carre’s SMILEY’S PEOPLE, Pierce Brosnan and Michael Caine doing Forsyth’s THE FOURTH PROTOCOL and even a whiff of Mickey Rourke and Bob Hoskin’s in Mike Hodge’s 1987 Jack Higgins’ IRA thriller A PRAYER FOR THE DYING.  Ian Wilson’s “flatly lit”, slightly diffused cinematography even gives the proceedings the cold analytical feel of those same anti-romantic “real world we saw on the news last night” old-timey British spy catcher pot boilers.  The script is lean, quick and efficient.  With enough story material to fill a two part mini-series it’s nice we get the important aspects of the participants and story in just over 105 mins.  One of the writers is Walter Bernstein (FAIL SAFE, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and the other is Lionel Chetwynd.  A Writer’s Guild Winner for 1974’s THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ Chetwynd would go on write and direct 1987’s Vietnam prison drama THE HANOI HILTON as well as script popular politically themed TV movies like RUBY RIDGE: AN AMERICAN TRADGEDY,  THE MAN WHO CAPTURED EICHMAN,  TOM CLANCY’S NET FORCE and the Showtime docu-drama DC 9/11: TIME OF CRISIS.  I mention these credits to possibly warn prospective viewers that DOOMSDAY GUN is talky … in a good way.  In that same sense classic politically based thrillers like FAIL SAFE, TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY are talky.  The dialog is fast and sharp - particularly between American intelligence operatives Kevin Spacey and Tony Goldwyn: akin to a verbal sword duel.  No!  More like a boxing match!  And in the same manner one has detailed police procedural films, so is DOOMSDAY GUN an “Intelligence Procedural”, and a very intelligent procedural as well

     The supporting cast is top notch.  For the sake of running time and clarification of narrative concepts Israeli Mossad Col. Yossi (portrayed by Alan Arkin), American intel operatives Jim Price and Donald Duvall (Spacey and Goldwyn respectively) and Mi6 Section Chief Sir James Whittington (James Fox) are obviously composite characters rather than actual persons from history like Gerald Bull.  This sort of character “composite creation” is normal, permissible and even necessary in fact based filmmaking.  The best example is still 1963’s THE GREAT ESCAPE wherein hundreds of real people and man hours are condensed into the machinations of approximately nine main characters.  Even though DOOMSDAY GUN’s supporting characters are more representative of conflicting points of political view than actual people, the talented cast make them as interestingly three-dimensional as the brief running time allows. 

     All in all definitely worth of a look-see. 

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