Under Fire Review
Nicaragua, 1979. After decades under unpopular dictators, civil war has broken out against President Somoza. Russell Price (Nick Nolte) is a leading photojournalist, his pictures featuring on the front cover of Time amongst others. At first he’s determined to stay neutral: “I don’t take sides, I take pictures”. But soon the events around him demand a greater commitment from him and his reporter friends Claire (Joanna Cassidy) and Alex (Gene Hackman).
Under Fire is an excellent film that, nearly two decades after its release, has been almost forgotten. It’s one of several 80s about journalists in war zones, along with The Year of Living Dangerously, The Killing Fields and Salvador, with a late-60s predecessor of sorts in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool. (I’ve avoided major spoilers in this paragraph but have included some minor ones. If you haven’t seen the film, you may wish to skip to the next paragraph.) In all these films, the central character makes a journey from initial detachment to a greater involvement in the ends. At the beginning of the film, Russell sees life only through a lens. When he meets an attractive translator (Alma Martínez), who later turns out to be involved with the guerillas, he frames her retreating back with his fingers, as if through a viewfinder. But by the end, he’s had to make some genuinely complex moral choices. His craft – or art – has been fatally compromised by being used in the cause of propaganda rather than truth, when he fakes a picture of guerilla leader Rafael to make him “alive” rather than dead. This action of his leads indirectly to the death of someone close to him. Throughout the film, his naïve idealism is contrasted with the cynical pragmatism of mercenary Oates (Ed Harris) who fights, and kills, for whoever pays him. And also French businessman Marcel Jazy (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who plays both sides against each other, taking upon himself the task of maintaining the stability of a nation.
Films can slip into semi-obscurity for many reasons. Under Fire certainly did not lack critical support: it featured in many critics’ top ten lists. But this didn’t translate into box office. If it had been possible to release this film in the year it was set, it may have done better but, four years into the Reagan era, audiences had no wish to see a film that pointed out certain less savoury aspects of US foreign policy. (Somoza and his American PR, played by Richard Masur, do get to say their piece, but it’s clear where the film’s sympathies lie.) Critical support didn’t translate into Oscar nominations either: the only one going to Jerry Goldsmith, deservedly, for his score.
Back in 1983, big things were expected of Roger Spottiswoode. He began his career as an editor, working for Peckinpah on Straw Dogs and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Under Fire was his third feature. Unfortunately, Spottiswoode has since proven to be a one-hit wonder, with this film being so much better than anything he did before or since you could be forgiven for wondering if someone else really made it. In the last two decades he’s continued to work, but just about everything he’s done since has been essentially anonymous work for hire. Given hindsight and the knowledge of what he went on to direct himself, you have to wonder how much influence co-writer and second-unit director Ron Shelton had. On a technical level, the film is hard to beat, with documentary-like camerawork from John Alcott and superb production design from Toby Carr Rafelson adding to a sense of vivid reality…even if Mexican locations inevitably stand in for Nicaragua. Goldsmith’s score is one of his finest. Take a major scene late on: the music builds up the unease very effectively, but the actual payoff is staged by Spottiswoode in long shot and virtual silence, and is all the more powerful as a result.
As for the cast, Nolte and Hackman had distinguished careers before this film, and have continued to have them. Harris and Trintignant (in his American debut, if you don’t count 1966’s US/French co-production Is Paris Burning?) lend considerable strength in support. In 1983, after her brief but eye-catching role in Blade Runner the year before and this film, Joanna Cassidy was very much a name to watch. But although she’s continued to work, the promise she showed hasn’t been fulfilled. She was thirty-seven when she made Under Fire, and she played a woman of around her own age (her character has a daughter graduating high school). More than likely she fell victim to Hollywood’s notorious inability to write good parts for women over forty.
Of its 80s counterparts, I’d call Under Fire as the most underrated, and along with Salvador possibly the best of them. Unfortunately the upshot of being so underrated is that it becomes a standard back-catalogue release from MGM. No complaints about picture quality: the transfer is anamorphic, in the original 1.85:1 ratio. The film has a dusty, natural-light look to it, which comes over well, and shadow detail is fine.
Under Fire has a soundtrack which tested the limits of what four-track analogue Dolby Stereo was capable of in the early 80s. At many points in the film, left or right and mono surrounds combine to make a pseudo split-surround effect. MGM have provided a Dolby Surround track and I can’t help wondering if a remix into Dolby Digital 5.1 would have a greater impact. (On a personal note, I first saw Under Fire in 1984 and it was one of the first Dolby soundtracks I ever heard, and the film’s many uses of directional sound almost distracted me from the film. Now, due to it being a Dolby Surround DVD, it’s rather underwhelming. How times and technology change.) There are sixteen chapter stops, which for a two-hour film is a little miserly. There are subtitle options in various languages, which you choose from the menu. The subtitles are optional, though those translating some lines of Spanish dialogue and providing a few place/time captions are locked. The disc is encoded for both Regions 2 and 4.
As this is a standard back-catalogue disc, the only extra is the trailer, also in anamorphic 1.85:1 but with a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack, running 2:49. It tries to sell the film as more of a thriller than it actually is and over-emphasises the romantic-triangle subplot between Russell, Claire and Alex. It would be interesting to hear a commentary from some of the principals, and some factual information on the Nicaraguan conflict would be useful. But they’re not on this disc. The static menu is a little difficult to navigate, as it’s not always obvious which link has been highlighted.
Under Fire is a first-rate film that much deserves rediscovery. However, MGM’s disc, while visually fine, doesn’t do it many favours.