Under Fire
Reviewed by David Sterritt

Produced by Jonathan Taplin; directed by Roger Spottiswoode; screenplay by Ron Shelton and Clayton Frohman; photographed by John Alcott; art direction by Augustin Ytuarte and Toby Rafelson; edited by Mark Conte; music by Jerry Goldsmith; starring Nick Nolte, Joanna Cassidy, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Richard Mazur, René Enríquez, Alma Martínez, Hamilton Camp, and Jenny Gago. Blu-ray, color, 128 min., 1983. A Twilight Time release.

Two pivotal events, both involving corpses, propel Under Fire, a political drama set in Nicaragua in 1979, shortly before dictator Anastasio Somoza fell from power and fled the country. The first takes place when American photojournalist Russell Price (Nick Nolte) gets an unexpected invitation to photograph a Sandinista leader known as Rafael, revered by grass-roots revolutionaries as a spearhead of their cause.

The invitation is surprising, since Rafael has never allowed his picture to be taken before; his face, seen in Che Guevara-style splendor on revolutionary banners, is an artist’s rendering. On top of this, Somoza has just announced that Rafael is dead. Escorted to a hidden revolutionary camp, Price discovers that Rafael has indeed been killed. What his deputies now want is a photograph that makes him look alive, since they think President Jimmy Carter will withhold forthcoming aid to Somoza if he believes the rebel leader is still living. This presents a crisis of conscience for Price, whose journalistic ethics are a point of pride. “I don’t take sides,” he growls, “I take pictures.” And yet, and yet.

Under Fire (1983)

Rafael’s brief appearance in the movie comes after his death, but the other pivotal corpse is that of an important secondary character: reporter and aspiring TV newsreader Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman), who departs for a cushy stateside job when he realizes that his girlfriend, radio reporter Claire Stryder (Joanna Cassidy), and best friend Price have fallen in love. Grazier returns to Nicaragua when he hears that Price has made contact with Rafael, expecting his buddy to arrange an interview for him. But during a routine stop at a checkpoint, a government guardsman abruptly and inexplicably shoots him dead. This key plot element is based on the 1979 murder by Nicaraguan soldiers of TV reporter Bill Stewart and his interpreter. Videotaped by a TV cameraman who happened to be nearby, this crime indeed led Carter to break off relations with Somoza’s regime, which collapsed a month later.

These aren’t the only dead bodies in Under Fire, which presents a succession of corpses at more or less regular intervals. That’s what war movies do, of course, but this is a guerrilla-war movie, and a relatively intelligent one at that. It therefore omits the mass carnage you’d look for in a typical Hollywood combat film, instead putting dramatic emphasis on individual deaths, whether of marginal figures like the man killed by a grenade in a nightclub attack or of significant characters like Rafael, Grazier, and Marcel Jazy (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a French double (or maybe triple) agent who weaves in and out of the picture on his own unpredictable schedule.

Equally mercurial is a slippery American operative named Oates (Ed Harris), whom we first meet in Africa during the film’s prologue. Although he doesn’t have much screen time, Oates is the story’s most chilling trickster, embodying its contention that political violence is inescapably volatile, inherently uncontrollable, and inextricably rooted in deceit, mendacity, and guile. He also provides the movie’s most grimly amusing moment, startling Price by cheerfully emerging from under a pile of corpses, the perfect hiding place for a man whose business is dealing out death.

Under Fire (1983)

Under Fire was an early feature for director Roger Spottiswoode, who began his career by editing Straw Dogs (1971) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) for Sam Peckinpah, from whom he learned the secret of anchoring an otherwise chaotic scene with a relatively still, even languid center of gravity. Spottiswoode mentions this in an audio commentary on Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray release of Under Fire, where he discusses the film with moderator Nick Redman, assistant editor Paul Seydor, and photojournalist Matthew Naythons, a technical advisor for the production. Their conversation illuminates the film in small but interesting ways: a municipal statue of Somoza seen in the film is actually a Mussolini statue that Somoza bought from Italy on the cheap, for instance; and unlike Rafael, the real revolutionary Augusto César Sandino was emblematized by his profile and hat, not his face. Naythons also remarks on Price’s car, labeled TV and Press [Prensa] in big, bold letters that would invite sniper fire or worse in today’s Middle Eastern conflicts.

The talk often turns to cinematographer John Alcott, who had won an Academy Award for his astonishing work on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) and brought the same yen for low-light visuals to Under Fire, prompting the wry suggestion that he could light a night scene with cigarettes. He was scrupulously attentive to details, painting houses along entire streets to get just the right colors. He also used long lenses to make bursts of action and violence seem simultaneously near and far, as they might well seem to Price, whose camera is both a permit to enter trouble spots and an imperfect shield from the dangers they hold. The filmmakers acknowledge Susan Meiselas’s classic 1981 photo book Nicaragua as a source of ideas and inspiration.

Under Fire, which fared poorly at the box office, was mildly controversial in its day. Aljean Harmetz noted in The New York Times that it “may be the only American movie in recent decades to side with a foreign government against which the United States has aligned itself,” adding that Orion Pictures production chief Mike Medavoy was hedging his bets by saying it had “political content” but no “political intent.” That didn’t redeem the film for Times critic Vincent Canby, who called it “silly enough to use a real, bloody war as the backdrop—the excuse, really—for the raising of the consciousnesses of a couple of mini-characters.” On the other end of the spectrum, Roger Ebert called it one of the year’s best films. And this in 1983, which also brought such politically minded pictures as Costa-Gavras’s Hanna K., Mike Nichols’s Silkwood, and Robert Altman’s Streamers.

Under Fire (1983)

Twilight Time has put a lot of effort into its Blu-ray release, supplementing the audio commentary mentioned above with a second one wherein Redman and film historians Julie Kirgo and Jeff Bond discuss Jerry Goldsmith’s score (which earned the movie’s lone Oscar nomination) with Bruce Botnick, the film’s music producer, and Kenny Hall, its music editor. Goldsmith’s score is unusual, blending conventional orchestration with panpipes, synthesizer, and guitar solos by the great Pat Metheny, who had turned down an offer to score the film himself. There are intriguing bits of information here—no authentic panpipes were available, for instance, so Goldsmith fabricated some out of ordinary tubing, and he was aware but unfazed that the instrument was incongruous for the story’s time and place. For those who don’t worship at Goldsmith’s shrine, the discussion may be off-putting as it proceeds from tribute to consecration to hagiography. That said, Twilight Time’s high regard for film music is commendable and, as always with its releases, you have the option of watching Under Fire with an isolated score and sound-effects track. Other extras include a superficial chat by Cassidy about the film and photos of the shoot from Naythons’s archive.

The ideas and characters of Under Fire seem less complex and compelling to me now than in 1983, but in the age of American Sniper—a film that seems more perplexing and problematic the more I think about it—the ever-shifting moral equations of Spottiswoode’s movie, written by Clayton Frohman and future director Ron Shelton, are certainly worth pondering. A more relevant Clint Eastwood movie is the admirable Flags of Our Fathers (2006), another exploration of photographic legerdemain with political consequences. That theme is ingrained in every aspect of Under Fire, which presents a Nicaragua filmed in Mexico, an Africa shot in California, fictional characters embedded in a nonfictional war, and a story in which the seemingly self-evident and the categorically true can prove to be worlds apart.

David Sterritt is a film professor at Columbia University and editor-in-chief of Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

To purchase the Under Fire Blu-ray, click here.

Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3, Summer 2015