“I like you people – but you are sentimental shits. You fall in love with the poets. The poets fall in love with the Marxists. The Marxists fall in love with themselves. The country falls in love with the rhetoric, and in the end we are stuck with tyrants.. In twenty years, we will know who’s right!”
- Jean-Louis Trintignant as Marcel Jazy
Hollywood’s commitment to political activism arguably reached its pinnacle of probative research and introspection during the 1980’s. It seemed everybody was making a statement on celluloid back then; directors, Richard Attenborough, bookending the decade with Gandhi (1982) and Cry Freedom (1987), Roland Joffé -The Killing Fields (1984) and Oliver Stone, mounting Salvador (1986). 1983’s representative to the cause was Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire; using the backdrop of the Nicaraguan Revolution and America’s flawed backing, (then withdrawal) by the Carter Administration, meant to prop up the despotic regime of Anastasio Somoza. Some of this political intrigue remains intact in Clayton Frohman and Ron Shelton’s screenplay. But you have to look for it – or rather, must possess at least a smattering of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, and, have an even better grasp on the arc of historical perspective, regarding this muddied unrest, begun with the founding of the Sandinista National Liberation Front in 1969, named for Augusto César Sandino, a freedom fighter in 1930, who resisted the U.S. occupation of his country even then.
Flash forward to a different era – or now, with the passage of 31 years since the movie’s debut, to…well; to paraphrase Rodgers & Hammerstein, “let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.” Alas, to quote another famous lyric from ‘As Time Goes By’ – “It’s still the same old story…a fight for love and glory…a case of do or die.” If the reference to 1942’s Casablanca seems off, it’s only because Spottiswoode’s Under Fire is a markedly less glamorous affair; the gritty Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico locations convincingly standing in for the Nicaraguan landscape. But what’s here is basically still a lover’s triangle; this one between noble radio journalist and single mother, Claire (Joanna Cassidy) torn between her on again/off again bloodless relationship with burgeoning TV news anchorman, Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman), and the promise of something more challenging and decidedly, much more volatile with his best friend, prize-winning photojournalist, Russell Price (Nick Nolte).
Price sees life more clearly through his lens. In fact, our first impressions of Claire are through the eye of his camera, capturing the essential unease, disappointment and regret she’s secretly suffering at a party given in Alex’s honor. What is superficially a celebratory moment is actually the end of their affair. The camera doesn’t lie? Well, not intentionally. But a picture is only as truthful as the thousand or so words printed to accompany it; a theory later tested when Nolte’s hotshot photog is asked to ‘stage’ a portrait of the fictional fallen hero, Raphael (Jorge Zepeda); dressing the deceased’s bullet-riddled body in combat fatigues and posing it between a pair of hardcore revolutionaries. The photo is meant to keep dwindling hope alive in the cause; also, to upset the Carter Administration’s current backing of President Somoza and undermine El Presidente’s press conference, even as Somoza’s sources have rightfully confirmed Raphael death. It’s a decision the forthright, usually fair and balanced Price will later live to regret.
But for the moment, Price is too involved in the impassioned furor of the struggle; too mixed up in his own head where his loyalties lay and much too distracted by the mutual seduction of his best friend’s girl and the emotional fallout it will rain down on all their lives. In the third act, none of the aforementioned participants is particularly thinking clearing; Claire, too desperate to survive the implosion of her personal life after Alex is killed and Price, momentarily left MIA, hunted by the reactionary militia, seeking refuge in the war-torn hovels. Claire’s life is already a mess without Price’s help or complicity; reneging on her responsibilities as the mother of a teenager, left in the care of her own mother back home, capable only of administering superficial advice by telephone to her offspring about the cleavage-revealing frock she’s worn to the prom (She should talk! Claire’s practically falling out of the red little number she wears to Alex’s party and later to the Viking Nightclub – a local watering hole populated by the foreign press and local politicos, soon to be bombed by the revolutionaries.)
The Frohman/Shelton screenplay does a fairly capable job of balancing the particulars of this complicated love affair with the more urgent political upheaval threatening to intrude. And Nolte, Hackman and Cassidy are giving career-making performances; fueled with a sustained level of glib, though thoroughly biting intensity. When Cassidy’s Claire eventually reunites with Nolte’s thoroughly deflated Price in his hotel room, and this after nervously suspecting she might never see him again, there is a genuine release and shared relief between these two that seems to validate and confirm the immediacy of the movie’s political message. All history is relative to the moment in which it occurs, but quickly fades into the annals of a history itself; buried in a textbook soon to be out of date and – even more alarmingly – out of print.
Our story begins with the breakup of Claire and Alex. He’s unwilling to concede defeat just yet, but eager to return to the U.S. where he’s being courted by a major TV network to become their anchorman. It’s an uneasy fit at best, Alex much more comfortable as a war correspondent, traveling from place to place; wherever the spirit moves and political climate is in a state of perpetual civil unrest. At present, it’s Chad, where the laid-back Price encounters goon/wannabe mercenary, Oates (Ed Harris). Here is a fellow so misguided in his thuggish thirst to fire a gun he winds up on a rebel convoy he’s mistaken for government soldiers. How uninformed can a guy get? Alas, Price is about to find out; arriving fashionably late at a going away party being given for Alex in the lobby of the hotel. Only moments before, Claire has been forthright in suggesting their love affair – such as it is – has come to a quiet end.
Price’s camera catches an unguarded glimpse of Claire’s sadness unobserved by the rest of the revelers; the two skulking off to a makeshift dark room where she confirms the breakup, much to Price’s amusement. He casually inquires whose fault it is ‘this time’; Claire’s honest response (she is to blame) sparking a mutual interest predicated on more than friendship. Not long thereafter, this trio winds up in Central America. While blowing off some steam, Alex, Price and Claire experience a coup d'etat orchestrated by militant revolutionaries who take hostages inside a local nightclub and inadvertently detonate a small grenade in the lounge. Shortly thereafter, Price is detained inside a prison, released and given back his passport only if he signs a waver claiming he was not arrested and his life was never threatened. In the meantime, Alex implores his Time Magazine editor to pick up his cover story about the bombing. Regrettably, the magazine is far more interested in covering another of the Pope’s benign goodwill tours; Alex, begrudgingly attempting to explain, “We’re backing a fascist government again. Look up Nicaragua. You drive to New Orleans and turn left.”
The despicable involvement of the U.S. is further hammered home by the appearance of Hubbell Kittle (Richard Masur); an insidious political animal attempting damage control from all sides. “There’s fascist and then there’s fascist,” he urges Alex to reconsider. Not long afterward, Alex’s decision to change careers midstream and become a TV news anchorman, leaves Price and Claire to go it alone, encountering the unprincipled Marcel Jazy (Jean-Louis Trintignant) for a formal introduction and interview with Somoza. Jazy openly admits he’s been schmoozing and fleecing both Somoza and the C.I.A. to satisfy his own cosmopolitan urges; ballsy enough even to be sleeping with Somoza’s supermodel girlfriend, Miss Panama (Jenny Gago); undoubtedly the kiss of death – or, at the very least a homemade castration – if ever their flagrante delicto is discovered. Alas, Somoza has bigger problems on his itinerary; chiefly Raphael’s most recent insurgency; the grassroots revival of the people’s war against its own government gaining stature and ground, much to Somoza’s chagrin. Superficially, Somoza presents a good front; charming and evasive. Behind the scenes, he’s already plotting his own evacuation in the event of a palace coup, even going so far as to dig up the remains of his parents for a speedy getaway.
Price grows increasingly appalled by the U.S.’s backing of this corrupt regime. He sets out to contact, photograph and interview Raphael; a veritable ghost whose whereabouts are unknown. Claire joins Price on this mission, the two introduced to Pedro (Eloy Phil Casados), one of the revolution’s leaders, unfortunately gunned down right before their eyes by Oates, who has survived a bell tower assault and bombing. Price knows Oates killed Pedro but remains silent, the first of two complicities in the film where his conscience and courage fail him. Eventually, Price and Claire are taken high into the mountains, to a retreat where it is revealed Raphael has already died; Price encouraged to fake a photo as though Raphael were still alive, thus giving a whole new – and unintentional – meaning to the oft’ quoted Hiram Johnson; “that the first casualty of war is truth.” Against his better judgment, Price agrees to this charade, causing Alex – now a bona fide television news anchor - to return to Nicaragua for a much-coveted interview.
Regrettably, he and Price become lost while driving down the militarized streets; Price witnessing Alex’s execution at the hands of Somoza’s military and pursued down tight back alleys on foot; narrowly escaping capture or, presumably, death. The roll of film he shot of Alex’s execution is hidden in the folds of a white flag Claire manages to smuggle out of the country; the images of Alex’s murder going viral and forcing the U.S. withdrawal of all funds to Somoza’s government, thereby hastening its collapse. In the waning hours of impending victory, Marcel is gunned down by a pair of inexperienced mercenaries. As Claire grieves for Alex’s loss at a makeshift hospital, she is rather cruelly informed by one of the attending nurses just how many civilian casualties it took to liberate the nation. “Maybe we should have killed an American journalist fifty years ago,” the woman reasons.
The end of Under Fire is a tad too optimistic and clever for the rest of the picture; Price fluffing off Oates’ inquiry whether he’ll be exposed for his complicity in Pedro’s murder; Price glibly adding, “See you in Thailand.” Earlier, Hubbell attempted to knock some common sense into Price’s head with “Listen, Russell. Let's grow up, huh? It's easy to fall in love with the underdog. But there's an upside and a downside to this thing” – a prophetic statement considering the film stops just short of what actually occurred in Nicaragua after the people’s victory celebration as depicted in the epilogue; the replacement of Jimmy Carter with Ronald Reagan signaling an even more aggressive push to topple the left-wing Sandinistas by ensconcing a decidedly right-wing Contra government in its stead.
Under Fire is undeniably intelligently made, capturing the immediacy of its danger-riddled back streets and byways, strewn in mortar shell fallout and decaying human debris. Too few war-torn/pseudo-political romance movies achieve this tenuous and effective balance director, Roger Spottiswoode seems effortlessly to display from start to finish. Alex’s assassination was actually based on the brutal execution of war correspondent/journalist Bill Stewart, callously gunned down by one of Somoza’s guards, the entire incident captured on video and circulated around the world. In lesser hands, the event and the movie might have become too theatrical/too action oriented to be believed and minus the heart and soul necessary to make the former resonate with genuineness. But Under Fire has been expertly cast, and even more astutely played by its three principles. Here are characters that never ‘feel’ like Hollywood stars doing their usual pretend. Even more miraculous, the Frohman/Shelton screenplay doesn’t fall into the usual clichés where love and war are concerned. There’s no love/hate parable at work. Cassidy’s Claire merely falls out of love with one man and into love with another. It’s not her fault and no one, least of all, Hackman’s Alex, cares enough to ascribe blame to this unexpected change of heart. Under the best of circumstances, life is imperfect. In war, it becomes positively unpredictable and trivialities, like the sway of the human heart, must take the proverbial backseat to more pressing realities.
Nothing about Under Fire seems manufactured. John Alcott’s no frills cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s pan flute and percussionist-inspired score add to the verisimilitude in meaningful ways that augment and inform. Part of movie’s documentarian quality is also owed to the seemingly casual nature of its central performances. There’s not a false note among them and all are ferociously empathetic. The screenplay, as well as the actors, gets to examine the consciences of these morally ambiguous outsiders. With this investment, there develops the struggle for impartiality befitting the canon of ethics in their chosen profession. Nicaragua is not a headline, but a real place with real people dying for their freedom. Spottiswoode’s focus is rightfully situated upon these moments of realization and in creating the right atmosphere to trump a mechanically forward-moving plot. As such, he illustrates the finer, less perceivable, and even less often exposed complexities of a badly muddled war in which the more personalized ‘moral compass’ of its protagonists is not only repeatedly tested under the strain of assault and murder, but increasingly becomes far more difficult to define.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is culled from the Orion Pictures catalog, now under MGM/Fox Home Video’s control. The image harvest is mostly impressive but not without its flaws. We have some age-related dirt, scratches and one instance of color streaking occurring right around the 23 min. mark. Frequently, clarity is less than razor-sharp; fine detail being lost in nondescript background details. Close-ups look very nice, but long shots are slightly out of focus or, at least, lacking the necessary and anticipated visual refinement. Flesh tones are on the orange side; not out of the realm of possibility for actors who are supposed to be slogging it in the sweaty and sunburnt regions of the world, and therefore would have become ruddier in their complexions. Contrast seems adequate, if not exceptional. There appears to be no untoward digital tinkering applied to the image and grain is consistently rendered. Overall, this transfer is organic and pleasing, particularly during the second half of the film.
The DTS 2.0 audio offers a fairly solid integration of dialogue, effects and Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score. Extras actually look more plentiful than they are. We get two independent audio commentaries, each informative in their own way; the one featuring Spottiswoode preferred. TT also gives us their usual commitment to an isolate score – alas, this time infrequently interrupted by SFX. There’s also Joanna Cassidy Remembers; billed as a featurette, when it’s little more than a handful of sound bites from Cassidy, truncated together and clumsily cut short. There’s also a photo archive and theatrical trailer. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)