A subtly powerful geopolitical thriller built around the virtues and vice of war reporters.
Roger Spottiswoode’s largely fictional retelling of the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 is a stark, affecting and relevant cinematic document of the United States’ geopolitical manipulation then and now. This 1983 film, which Roger Ebert called one of the best American movies of the year, still feels fresh; a bleak and bloody window on to yesterday’s wars and a reminder of today’s. The only thing dating it – and providing some of Under Fire’s most telling dramatic tension – is Nick Nolte’s old Nikon and his bag of 35mm film rolls.
Brilliantly photographed by Englishman John Alcott (who won an Oscar for his work on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon eight years prior to shooting Under Fire), the film’s lowkey approach favours character and situation over battlefield action. That the moving parts of interpersonal relationships occur in the same place as the bullets are flying add to director Spottiswoode’s atmospheric staging. The carnage of street-to-street gun fights both revealing military manoeuvre and journalistic endeavour.
However, what makes the film so satisfying is its portrayal of photojournalism at its most daring. Here Nolte plays daredevil “periodista” Russell Price who heads to Nicaragua to cover the political unrest leading to the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) ousting dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The fighting on the streets is the ideal scoop for the photographer but this is complicated by his sympathies for the revolutionaries and his affections for fellow journalist Claire (Joanna Cassidy).
Inspired both by the events leading to Somoza’s fall from power and the 1979 death of ABC reporter Bill Stewart by National Guard forces, Under Fire intelligently questions the ethics of journalism while similarly spotlighting a fine line between real and imagined truth. It thrillingly reveals the power of a single image, and how even a still frame of reality can be manufactured to coerce opinion and, during the machinations of civil conflict and proxy wars, influence outcomes.
And it does this with the emotional charge of Nolte’s typically hard-nosed skill. Cassidy’s time-served journalist ensures the elements of romance that blossom between her and Nolte don’t appear contrived amidst the battleground setting. She also gets plenty of mileage out of a support part, upstaging Gene Hackman’s reduced role as newsman Alex Grazier. Jerry Goldsmith’s terrific score is also worthy of compliment as is, of course, Alcott’s glorious cinematography. A subtly powerful geopolitical thriller built around the virtues and vice of war reporters.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Roger Spottiswoode
Written by: Clayton Frohman, Ron Shelton
Starring: Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Richard Masur, Ed Harris
Released: 1983 / Genre: Political Thriller
Country: USA / IMDB
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Under Fire is released on Blu-ray on June 17, 2019.