Cinema is fascinated with what is happening at the moment, although sometimes it takes a while to find out just what is happening. Hollywood cinema, for instance, is often guilty of focusing abroad only when it concerns the USA. Case in point: the Vietnam War. There are a lot of movies about it, but none I know about the first Vietnam War, also known as the Indochina War, fought between France and Vietnam from 1946 to 1954. Few have heard of it. It’s a pity because it illuminates the reason why the USA even went to Vietnam in the first place (Francis Ford Coppola almost breached the subject in the Redux version of his war classic).
In the ‘80s Vietnam was history. Latin America was news. Truth be said, Latin America had been an interesting place to make movies about since the ‘60s, at least. Costa-Gavras was a pioneer with his movie State of Siege, about the underground war between the rebels Tupamaros and the CIA-backed dictatorship. But this was in 1972; interest was still in Vietnam. By the ‘80s, however, the USA government could no longer hide the fact that it was supporting dictatorships to defend American business abroad. Then Hollywood became interested and the movies started coming out, slowly but surely, as if from an assembly line. They came in all types, very different from each other, identical only in their excellent quality. There were biopics like Salvador and Missing; there were movies that explored the historical roots of colonialism, like The Mission. Some movie turned to the personal experience of people who lived in those dictatorships, and so Argentine novelist Manuel Puig saw his novel adapted into Kiss of the Spider-Woman. It’s in this context that we must place Under Fire, a movie about the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution that overthrew President Somoza. It’s a movie that is mostly forgotten but that I believe still matters today, not least because it’s a well-crafted movie with a great cast.
Under Fire is partly a fictionalised account of the story of Bill Stewart, an ABC News reporter gunned down by the Nicaraguan Army patrol at a road checkpoint. A cameraman filmed the execution and the footage caused a scandal back in the USA. The movie doesn’t hide the irony that the life of one American journalist did more to turn public reaction against the government’s support of the dictatorship than the lives of thousands of Nicaraguans. Like a Nicaraguan female doctor treating civilians says, “maybe we should have killed an American journalist 50 years ago.” One can see why on its release the movie was accused, unfairly I think, of being Anti-American.
The movie follows the photojournalist Russell Price (Nick Nolte), who trots around the globe, from war to war, taking pictures. We first meet him in Chad, risking his life to take photos of the rebels. With the way he puts himself in danger to get good photos we learn three things about him: he’s fearless, he’s a committed professional and he’s been doing this a long time. It’s also in Chad that the movie sets up a running theme throughout the movie: the uncomfortable comparison between journalists and mercenaries. In a darkly funny scene Price meets an old friend, Oates (Ed Harris), inside a truck full of rebels. Oates is a mercenary and thinks he’s with the government troops. Price corrects him: he’s in fact sitting next to rebels. Oates doesn’t worry because the rebels only speak French. Oates also trots around the glob from war to war; like Price, he feeds on conflict. Neither takes sides; Oates does, of course, but only for monetary reasons; he doesn’t really care about politics. And Price tries to remain impartial. It’s obvious they’ve known each other for a long time. It’s inevitable that their paths will cross in Nicaragua.
In Nicaragua Price starts questioning his impartiality. “I think I finally saw one too many bodies,” he says. As Price starts embracing the cause of the Sandinistas, the group opposed to Somoza’s dictatorship, the movie becomes an interesting study of journalistic ethics, of information manipulation, and of the creation of myths to rouse people. To what extent is what we see reported the truth and not fabrications? How noble is it to fool people for a good cause? More than just agitprop, this movie opens up essential questions that any healthy democracy should regularly pose. Propaganda works both ways, of course, and the movie, quite pioneering, doesn’t ignore the role PR companies play in whitewashing the criminal images of dictatorships.
The movie is also a love triangle between Price, Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman) and Claire (Joanna Cassidy), both journalists too. Although I tend to dislike love stories in such movies because they always seem like tactics to keep people interested, as if politics weren’t interesting enough, here the love relationships are quite subtle and understated, I’d even say adult. There isn’t an overflow of sentimentality or an exhibition of romantic excesses or tropes. And the romance stays in the background of the political story.
I can’t find faults in any of the actors. Nolte is particularly enjoyable, with his gruff, rugged personality that slowly opens up to new ideas and feelings as he becomes involved with the Sandinistas. I had never seen Joanna Cassidy in a movie before, but I wonder why she isn’t a better known start; she carried a lot of the movie herself. Hackman, who has a smaller role, was also solid. Harris was simultaneously funny and chilling. But of the actors in the minor roles Jean-Louis Trintignant stood out as the sensual French CIA agent, who hides his viciousness under a veneer of politeness and joie de vivre.
In terms of technique, I’d place this movie on the same level as Costa-Gavras’ better known Missing. Roger Spottiswoode creates some intense scenes of urban warfare and he makes palpable the atmosphere of fear and anticipation as the war leaves the countryside and approaches Managua, the capital. Particularly effective are the empty streets, punctuated by army checkpoints, as well as the unexpected, farway bullet noises in the distance, giving the impression that there’s a whole lot of things going on outside the frame of the camera. Spottiswoode had the good luck of working with director of photography John Alcott (his credits include A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining). Each scene is framed in an interesting way. As an example, in the opening sequence rebels emerge from a deceptively desolate clearing. It’s a neat trick.
As important as Alcott’s cinematography is Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score. A chameleon of film music, Goldsmith could adjust his talent to suit any style, genre or mood. In here it makes extensive use of ethnic music and guitar by Jazz player Pat Metheny. The music contributes a lot to creating an exciting, suspenseful ambient and has become more famous than the movie itself.
The movie is bloody and violent, and the violence is quite realistic, unexpected and brutal. Although the movie has a streak of dark humour, it never trivialises the violence itself. According to Spottiswoode, the studio produced the movie knowing that it’d be a commercial failure. They made the movie because they believed the story was worth telling. Thought-provoking and sometimes unpleasant, I think this is an underappreciated gem that will hold the interest of anyone willing to give it a chance.
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Screenplay: Ron Shelton, Clayton Frohman
Cast: Nick Nolte, Joanna Cassidy, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Richard Masur
Runtime: 128 min