By John H. Foote
14. UNDER FIRE (1983)
There will be no surprise from me if you have not heard of this film. It opened and was out of theatres within a month. Incredibly it earned rave reviews, and I thought after seeing the film for the first time, it would be rewarded with no less than eight or nine Academy Award nominations.
The single nomination it received, deservedly so, was for the superb, haunting musical score, one of the finest I have ever heard.
Though I have never understood to this day why the film failed to attract an audience, I have always maintained the film was an unsettling work of art that deserved an audience. Brilliant in every category, it remains a masterwork from little known director Roger Spottiswoode, who truly got everything right on this one film.
Set in 1979 at the fall of the Somoza regime, which saw widespread massacres in Nicaragua by the government, the film explores the revolution of the people which brought down the regime. Though the film is fictional, there can be no denying it was inspired by the killing of ABC News reporter Bill Stewart, his killing caught on camera and shown around the globe, dealing a devastating blow to the Somoza government. This incident ended any relationship the Carter Administration had with Somoza, whose entire regime had fallen within a month of Stewart’s killing.
The film explores the lives of a group of reporters who pop around the globe covering wars and civil wars within various countries. Opening in Chad, Russell (Nick Nolte) encounters Oates (Ed Harris), a blazing eyed mercenary who travels the world killing who he is told to kill. Russell likes him well enough, but is wary of what he does, for good reason. Russell is reassigned to South America, where the Somoza is about to fall to the rebels who have lashed back. Carrying his cameras around his neck like appendages, Russell is never without one and never fails to pull one out and start shooting.
Also in Nicaragua are Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman), a well known news reporter for television, and Claire (Joanna Cassidy), also a writer but for radio, both covering the war. The two are ending an affair, and when Russell arrives, he and Claire fall in love. Stunned at the state of affairs in the country, Russell shoots everything he sees, and digs into the political world. When Alex is called back to America he knows that the affair with Claire is over, and heads back for a while.
This allows Russell and Claire to go deeper into the revolution. Wanting a picture of the revolutionary leader, Rafael, Russell is offered an interview and chance to photograph the leader. Taken deep into the jungle, he finally is face to face with Rafael, who has been dead for a few days. Knowing a photo of the leader could alter the tide of the revolution, he agrees to fake a photo which is soon on the front page of every newspaper in the world. Most of all it is a nail in the coffin of the government who thought he was dead (well, he is). Knowing he has violated his code as a newsman, Russell sees the greater picture of the good that can come with the fall of the government ruled without mercy, ruthlessly by Somoza.
Alex returns, smug as ever and angered about his friends and their affair, but also knowing there is nothing he can do about it. He goes out in a news truck, clearly marked, Russell tagging along and they are stopped by government soldiers. While Alex tries to explain what they are doing, Russell aims his camera at the soldiers and his friend. He watches in absolute horror as the soldiers shoot Alex dead, right in broad daylight, every second, every shot captured on Alex’s camera. He just never stopped shooting until he could register what had happened.
Having captured the killing on film, it is very quickly on the news all over the world, a further nail in the Somoza coffin.
Russell encounters the killer Oates again, a mercenary for the CIA, who he now knows has been killing the rebels, people Russell knows and liked. His disgust for Oates is positively clear. The government overthrown, their work here is done and they look at the rest of the world to decide where to go next.
Taut, beautifully acted and directed, written, shot, cut and scored, this was a masterpiece and has never been given the credit it so deserves. Beyond being a superb political film, it is a superb study of journalism in the days before internet and digital media. You worked for a story, did homework, took risks, and were willing to die for a true event. ABC newsman Bill Stewart paid the ultimate price for his reporting, dying exactly as Alex does in this film, the portrayal of his death is eerie in its realism.
Nick Nolte has never been better than he is here as Russell, and he has been Oscar nominated for other work. Make no mistake, he soars here. The litany of cameras he carries or attends when not in the field are like third and fourth arms to him, there at the ready when he needs them. The only time he fails to grab one is when the young baseball player he likes is shot long range by Oates, hiding in a tower out of sight, until he wants Russell to see him. Stunned by what has happened right beside him, Russell is human after all. Nolte has always been an interesting actor, exploding out of television after his sublime work in Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) to full blown movie stardom in The Deep (1978). His best work, here, and in films such as Weeds (1987), The Prince of Tides (1991) and Affliction (1997) make him among America’s finest character actors, but sadly his off screen antics have cost him more than one great role.
Gene Hackman is terrific as always as Alex, so very concerned with his ego and how things look. The man is fearless in portraying an arrogant smug ass, and he does it so very well. Hackman had come out of the seventies with an Oscar for Best Actor in The French Connection (1971) and should have had two other nominations for The Conversation (1974) and French Connection II (1975), continuing his work through the eighties and nineties. He would win another Oscar for his supporting work as the sadistic Marshall in Unforgiven (1992), an astonishing performance, and deserved another for Best Actor in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). He remains one of the greats to emerge from the seventies, though no longer acts, choosing to write novels and relax.
Ed Harris was terrifying as the bright eyed, cheery psychopath who happily travels the world killing people, a sensational performance in the very early years of his career. This was the year he broke through in The Right Stuff (1983) and his haunting performance is chilling, one of the finest of his career. I remember him being surprised I had seen the film and admired it so much. His superb work in Apollo 13 (1995) and even more so in The Truman Show (1998) earned him Academy Award nominations for supporting actor and he was brilliant as painter Jackson Pollock in Pollock (2000) for which he was finally a Best Actor nominee. Gifted and confident, he is among the finest character actors in film history,
As Claire, Joanna Cassidy did the finest work of her career. A mother dedicated to her work, so much that she is virtually an absent mom. Knowing this, she is often filled with self loathing but cannot help herself when a story breaks, she must be there.
Talk about a one hit wonder, Spottiswoode brought to the senses the look, feel, even the smells of a Third World country, but also captured the lush green beauty of the jungles where the rebels hide. The boat ride there is absolutely stunning, accompanied by one of the greatest scores in film history, reused by Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained (2012) for the journey to Candyland. The flutes and pipes are beautiful together and give the score a beautiful, melancholy, often other worldly quality though from time to time they are also celebratory. By far the finest film set in a Third World country, the film deals with a man who deserves to be thrown out of power, a dainty, delicate dictator portrayed well by Rene Enriquez. A fussy, seemingly delicate man and polite man, Somoza, make no mistake, is a killer and the piles of dead bodies we see throughout the film bear that out. He works very hard at charming the press, but gradually they join ranks and close in on him.
Oliver Stone’s gritty, raw Salvador (1986) and Missing (1982) are two of the finest American made films about unrest in South America, but both are topped by Under Fire, which is both thriller and investigative film about what is happening behind the face of a smiling, well fed monster. How it was not nominated for at least eight to 10 Academy Awards I will just never understand. This was a masterpiece of filmmaking.
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.