By Dawn's Early Light

There never has been a made-for-cable movie as sleek and efficient as By Dawn’s Early Light. Fast-moving, complex, and only occasionally a bit hokey, it’s by far the best original movie project HBO has overseen.

The premise of By Dawn’s Early Light — America’s reaction to a nuclear attack-has been dealt with in films many times over the last few decades, from On the Beach to Dr. Strangelove to WarGames. It’s a measure of director Jack Sholder’s skill that ITALIC {By Dawn’s Early Light}] isn’t reminiscent of any other doomsday thriller.

In this one, the United States discovers that the Soviet Union has launched a nuclear missile aimed at the U.S. The President, played by Martin Landau, is shocked — in the near future in which the movie is set, America and the Soviet Union have become respectful neighbors. It’s all a tragicomedy of errors. It turns out that a small group of Soviet rebel hard-liners launched the missile, but the damage has been done, and the two superpowers commence frantic attacks and counterattacks.

Director Sholder gives us a barrage of technological information with a minimum of jargon; even more important, he makes the situation a human one, cutting back and forth between the Oval Office and a B-52 bomber crew led by Powers Boothe.

Rip Torn is fabulous as a hawkish military adviser, and when the White House is blasted by a nuclear explosion, Darren McGavin, as the Secretary of the Interior, takes over the country because he is the administration’s highest-ranking survivor.

There’s a romance between Boothe and his copilot, played by Rebecca De Mornay, that is both goopy and unbelievable, and James Earl Jones, as a submarine captain, isn’t given much to do except pose heroically. But there’s more tension and unpredictability in By Dawn’s Early Light than in any number of theatrical films around right now.

By Dawn's Early Light
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