The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - UNDER FIRE (1983) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - UNDER FIRE (1983)

under fire review
An American combat photographer loses his objectivity while on assignment in war-torn Nicaragua.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Roger Spottiswoode

Starring: Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Richard Masur

under fire blu-ray

A product of a time when Hollywood's liberal elites were willing to put their money where their mouths where and fund confrontational political cinema, Roger Spottiswoode's 1983 drama Under Fire explores themes that are still all too relevant today, perhaps even more so in these media saturated times. With the US government currently gearing up to invade Venezuela and install their own hand-picked dictator, the film's milieu of the Nicaraguan civil war of the late '70s now serves as a stark wake up call in 2019.

That war, waged between the socialist Sandinista movement and the US backed Somoza fascist regime, came to an end in the summer of 1979 when footage emerged of an American TV news reporter's execution at the hands of government soldiers. With the tide of American public opinion turning against Somoza, President Jimmy Carter was forced to withdraw his support for Somoza, whose regime quickly fell once US aid dried up.

under fire review

Like many Hollywood movies that explore political hotspots around the world, Under Fire could be accused of focussing on its blue-eyed American protagonists while ignoring the plight of the brown people whose bodies pile up around them. It's important then to remember that this particular war ended specifically because an American TV audience couldn't stomach seeing one of their own lose his life, even though images of the slaughter of Nicaraguans had been beamed into their living rooms for months without causing much upset.

While Under Fire barely gives a voice to either side of the Nicaraguan conflict, portraying Somoza as a cartoon buffoon and the Sandinistas as a bunch of sexy warrior poets, it does at least have a self-awareness regarding its positioning upfront of its white American characters. When we first meet combat photo-journalist Russell Price (Nick Nolte) he's on assignment in Chad, where he runs into CIA adjacent mercenary Oates (Ed Harris). The two grizzled veterans of combat hotspots share some ghoulish humour about their objectivity, with Oates suddenly realising he's mistakenly fighting among a group of rebels, rather than the government forces he signed up to serve with.

When Price's mentor, Alex Grazier (an under-served Gene Hackman), lets Price know that he and his lover, radio reporter Claire (Joanna Cassidy), are heading for Nicaragua, where a "nice war and a nice hotel" awaits them, Price decides to tag along. In Nicaragua, Price and Claire rekindle an old romance behind Grazier's back as they team up to track down Rafael, the man whose Che Guevara like visage has come to embody the rebel cause.

Falling in with a group of rebels, Price and Claire find themselves struggling with their impartiality as they come around to supporting the Sandinista cause. In one of the film's more shocking moments, Oates pops up in Nicaragua and fires a sniper shell into a young rebel whose love of baseball has seen him bond with Price, who refuses to give up Oates' position. Later, Price and Claire do indeed find Rafael, or at least his corpse. Price compromises his profession by faking a photograph to make it appear as though Rafael is still alive, a development aimed at revitalising the rebel movement. When Price's photos of the rebels are stolen by a double-crossing French spy (a seedy Jean-Louis Trintignant), the lives of the rebels he befriended are placed in jeopardy.

under fire review

As scripted by Clayton Frohman and rewritten by future sports drama auteur Ron Shelton, Spottiswoode's film argues for impartiality from both the US media and its military. It was made in an era before cable news channels that explicitly take political sides, and in this way it may have lost some of its ability to shock. We've become well accustomed to media manipulation - where a front page story can justify a war, only to be later followed by a single paragraph retraction on page 27 - though unlike Price's actions in aiding the Sandinistas, in reality it's always in favour of western interests.

What is striking is how the film has no qualms in aligning itself with a group in the Sandinistas who were officially considered enemies of the US. It's impossible to imagine a Hollywood movie emerging today in which its heroes come to the aid of Venezuela's Nicolรกs Maduro or Syria's Assad regime.

If things occasionally get a little far-fetched, the film is somewhat grounded by Nolte's everyman performance. Coming a year after his famously hoary turn in 48 Hrs., Nolte's performance here feels like it was made a decade before that Eddie Murphy vehicle, so well does he convey his character's naivete. His Price is a stand-in for the American public, arriving wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and committed to the values of his profession ("I take pictures, not sides"), but his objectivity is soon broken down when he witnesses firsthand the horrors his country inflicts in the name of safe-guarding their own interests. Price and Claire's romance may have come off as distasteful against this backdrop were it not itself fuelled by their mutual loss of innocence. The more committed to the rebel cause they become, the closer they are drawn together, activism as aphrodisiac.

under fire review

Shooting in Mexico on a modest budget with a local crew he knew from his time working under Sam Peckinpah, Spottiswoode and his art department work wonders in convincing us the action we're seeing really is taking place in a war-torn nation. Walls are pock-marked with bulletholes, rubble and bodies litter the streets and the rumble of government tanks provides an ominous soundtrack to accompany Jerry Goldsmith's melancholy score.

Like many of the politically charged dramas of the '80s (the only true masterpiece of this movement is Roland Joffรฉ's The Killing Fields), Under Fire today feels a little naive, a little too glamorous and a little on-the-nose. But with today's Hollywood so reluctant to indulge in politics (outside of cynical marketing campaigns aimed at exploiting identity politics, that is), we may have to rely on this era of filmmaking for commentary on the geo-politics of our own unjust times.

Two commentaries - one with director Roger Spottiswoode, assistant editor Paul Seydor, photo-journalist Matthew Naythons and film historian Nick Redman' the other with music mixer-producer Bruce Botnick, music editor Kenny Hal and film historians Jeff Bond, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman; brief Joanna Cassidy interview; original trailer; booklet with new writing by author Scott Harrison (first 2000 copies only).

Under Fire is on blu-ray June 17th from Eureka Entertainment.