Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Screenplay: Clayton Frohman, Ron Shelton
Starring: Nick Nolte, Joanna Cassidy, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris
Country: USA, Mexico
Running Time: 128 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
When I was a teenager I was interested in pursuing a career in journalism. Largely, I just wanted to be a film critic but I was still intrigued by the seeming excitement of reporters, photographers and videographers gathering and investigating news. Due to my love of cinema then, I had a particular interest in films about journalism. Network was, and still is, a particular favourite of mine, but I was keen to watch anything surrounding the subject. Under Fire is a film about a photojournalist that passed me by when I was young. In fact it passed most people by as it failed to make much of an impact back in the early 80s when it came out. It has since been re-appraised though as an undiscovered gem, so when I heard Eureka were releasing it on Blu-Ray, complete with a handful of special features, I couldn’t resist giving it a whirl.
Under Fire, which is loosely based on a handful of true stories but refashioned into a fictional one, is set in 1979 and stars Nick Nolte as Russell Price, a photojournalist specialising in covering war-zones. After hearing about the rise of revolutionaries in Nicaragua and unrest reaching boiling point, he heads over there to see if he can get some good coverage. Joining him are the newly broken-up journalist couple Claire (Joanna Cassidy) and Alex (Gene Hackman). Price soon begins a relationship with Claire, much to the jealousy of Alex, who leaves to go back to America after being offered a news anchor job.
Price and Claire travel across Nicaragua in search for Rafael, the supposed leader and poster boy of the revolution. As they witness the actions of the corrupt Nicaraguan government (supported by the US) and learn more about the beliefs and lives of the revolutionaries, their journalistic neutrality is put to the test. Later, when Price gets a chance to help the revolution, he must decide whether or not it’s worth sacrificing his journalistic integrity. His anguish is further heightened when Alex returns and wants in on the story.
Under Fire is a really solid, well constructed political thriller. I could find little to fault in the film, however I never quite fully fell for it. I think the problem is I couldn’t help but compare it to other similar films I’ve seen fairly recently. The most obvious one is Oliver Stone’s Salvador, also about a photojournalist in over his head in a messed up South American situation fanned by US involvement. I found Salvador a bit too bombastic and Under Fire improves on this, offering a relatively restrained approach. However, it felt a little more ‘Hollywood’ at times, with the love triangle aspect anchoring the film and less emphasis put on political statements in favour of entertainment value. Due to this less impassioned political content, Under Fire didn’t have the same impact on me as Stone’s effort. Another fairly similar film I saw last year was Missing. Granted it’s not about a photojournalist, but it does see American ‘civilians’ discover first hand the horrors of US-backed civil unrest. Missing tops both films in my book, taking a more intimate and emotionally devastating route. So, as strong as I found much of Under Fire, I couldn’t help but feel it was in the shadow of some slightly more successful films on a similar subject (The Killing Fields is another one I could cite).
Away from comparisons though, one aspect I liked about Under Fire was how it presented the work of a photojournalist. Nolte acts as I imagine a photojournalist would, rushing to grab the perfect shot, no matter how dangerous or precarious a situation he got himself into, snapping away without emotion (to begin with at least) in front of some horrifying situations. The nature of his business comes into question in a couple of shocking twists too, making for a thought-provoking watch.
The film is also very nicely shot. The great John Alcott (The Shining, A Clockwork OrangeBarry Lyndon, he uses only natural lighting to give the film a naturalism, while still capturing some wonderful images. The action scenes are effectively presented too, building slow tension then delivering the killer blows in short, sharp shocks.
The cast is also great. Gene Hackman isn’t in it as much as the publicity suggests, but he’s as dependable as ever when on-screen. Nolte makes up for the lack of Hackman, with an impressively textured performance. Cassidy is very good too. Stealing the show in a few short but crucial appearances though is Ed Harris, who plays a cold but charismatic CIA agent/assassin stirring up trouble wherever he goes.
Also worth mentioning is Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which maybe doesn’t have a strong memorable theme akin to his more familiar work but provides a rich texture to the film. The score is used sparingly to avoid glossing over everything, but when it does appear it has a great impact without feeling overblown.
All in all then, Under Fire is a well-crafted and gripping political thriller. With a great cast, fine location photography and some exciting set-pieces, it’s hard to fault, but it likes the bite and impact of some similar better-known films that spring to mind whilst watching.
Under Fire is out on 17th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. The picture quality is first-rate – detailed and natural-looking. I found the dialogue slightly unclear at times, but it felt like a problem with the original recording and mix rather than the new Blu-Ray transfer.
You get a few special features too:
– Stunning 1080p presentation on Blu-ray
– Uncompressed LPCM 2.0 audio
– Optional English SDH subtitles
– Audio Commentary with director Roger Spottiswoode, Assistant Editor Paul Seydor and Photo-Journalist Matthew Naythons, and Film Historian Nick Redman
– Audio Commentary with Music Mixer-Producer Bruce Botnick, Music Editor Kenny Hal and Film Historians Jeff Bond, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman
– Joanna Cassidy Remembers Under Fire [3 mins]
– Original Theatrical Trailer
– Limited Edition Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by author Scott Harrison [2000 copies only]
The commentaries are both excellent. The rapport between Spottiswoode and Seydor etc. is great and their track is filled with interesting anecdotes about the production. The other commentary focuses on the film’s music and generally the work of composer Jerry Goldsmith. It’s refreshing to hear a track almost solely focussed on music as it’s an area of filmmaking I’m particularly interested in (I wrote my university dissertation on film music). The Cassidy interview is too brief to be all that illuminating, but it’s good to hear from the actress who did a great job in the film but isn’t as well known as her co-stars. As always, the booklet is excellent too. Here a lot of information is provided about the political situation which fuelled the story.