By John H. Foote
After seeing the new film A Private War at TIFF this year, the story of war correspondent Marie Colvin I came home to find a similar film I have long admired from the eighties.
Simply said, Under Fire (1983) is among the greatest films ever made about American involvement in a war-torn country, a startling political work which incorporates into its narrative a real-life event, the killing of ABC News reporter Bill Stewart by Nicaraguan forces while gathering news information.
The first time I saw Under Fire (1983) was upon its release in 1983, and I was knocked out, just stunned by the film. Pauline Kael gave the film a long glowing review and I thought the film would be competing for Academy Award glory the following spring. Oddly it was nominated for its score and nothing else, nothing. This is a film so well acted, directed, written, shot, edited and scored it could have easily been nominated for eleven or twelve Oscars, but instead it was snubbed, to find an audience on video, and then disappear. I watched the film again recently and was startled as to how well it held up, how topical it feels thirty-three years later.
Nick Nolte is Russell, a famous photographer who sells his work to the highest bidder, be it Time or Newsweek, knowing he is making a living off the suffering of others, their troubles, but never getting involved. He is never without a camera and seems to always be snapping shots of what he is seeing though he maintains a distance from the locals in order to not take anything personally. The taking of a photograph has become like taking a breath to him, an action occurs and he reaches for one of the cameras strung around his neck. Moving from Chad, from one civil war to another to Nicaragua, the press all know each other and stick close together. Russell is good friends with an ABC reporter, soon to be head anchor Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman), and Clare (Joanna Cassidy) another reporter. Alex and Clare are in the process of ending their relationship, while Russell and Clare are finding one another. Also in Chad is a CIA assassin, Oates (Ed Harris) who Russell knows and relies on for information from time to time. Oates has the smile of a happy psychopath, set down in a country to do whatever he wants, to kill whoever he wants.
As the Samoza government falls, the American press is there is there to cover it, to attempt to tell the truth of what is taking place. There is a revolution afoot, something extraordinary is happening in the country and they are there to see it first hand. However, Russell and Clare get too involved and take a journey to see the rebels and photograph the dead body of their leader Rafael, which builds the hope of the rebels and helps bring down the government. However there is a terrible price to be paid, Alex is gunned down by the government soldiers when they are stopped at a checkpoint, as Russell shoots film, catching the whole thing on film. With no feelings or emotion, or reason, the white flag clearly was shown, their touch marked press, the soldiers shot Alex in cold blood. It is a startling moment of terrifying realism that stuns the audience the moment it happens with its stark and cold realism. It is a case of Americans not appreciating their freedom and the fact they are in a third world country where there are no rules that sanction Americans or Canadians. They make a bad move and it costs Alex his life, just as it cost ABC reporter Bill Stewart his, shot down in the street as his friends took pictures of the event not realizing what was happening until it was too late. The press places themselves in genuine danger by covering wars in various countries around the globe, white flags and “press” written on cars and vehicles do not necessarily keep them safe.
The film is beautiful to look at with pristine cinematography displaying the stunning beauty of the country and lush jungles, the score of the film is haunting, the flute and guitars creating one of the most beautiful musical scores in a dramatic film I have ever heard, and the editing is sublime.
Nick Nolte gives a superb performance as Russell, possibly the finest of his career, capturing the feel of a news photographer, the cameras ever present, like another appendage to him, not a tool so much as part of him. Cassidy is terrific as Clare, smart and beautiful, perhaps dedicated to her work more than she cares to admit, and Gene Hackman all bombastic, smug arrogance as Alex, cannot quite believe Clare has left him for Russell. He believes himself to be smarter than he is, and frankly a little better than everyone else, and that very arrogance leads him to make a fatal mistake. Each brings something unique and powerful to their characters, and add to the pictures stunning realism.
Ed Harris brings a loopy madness to the picture, a CIA operative who moves from country to country so often he does not even know who he travels with sometimes or who the enemy is. He is there to kill and kill he does. HIs bright blue eyes shine with a glee at what he gets to do. He cannot understand, truly, why Russell takes such exception with his actions. This was a breakthrough year for Harris, as he also portrayed John Glenn in the remarkable space epic The Right Stuff (1983).
Roger Spottiswoode had a long and fruitful career in Hollywood as a director for hire for a studio picture, he made one genuinely great film, Under Fire (1983), is both his and a moving masterpiece. The great critic Pauline Kael loved the film, hailing it a soaring work of art, and she was right on the money. Sadly audiences did not flock to see it, though it did find a life on home video.
This is a film that should have garnered Academy Award nominations for Film, Actor, Director, Supporting Actor and Actress, Screenplay, Cinematography, Musical Score, Sound, and Editing. It is in a word astounding from start to finish, devastating in its visceral power, haunting in its beauty, and frightening in what it says about the human race.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.