ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Under Fire (1983) starring Nick Nolte Blu Ray (Eureka!)
Three reporters cover a Central American insurgency
This political thriller is set in 1979. It focuses on three American war journalists - Russell Price (Nick Nolte), Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman) and the latter’s wife Claire (Joanna Cassidy) - who travel to Nicaragua in order to cover the then-ongoing civil war between the Sandinista insurgents and the authoritarian government led by President Anastasio Somoza (René Enríquez).
When Price hears about a mysterious Sandinista figurehead who goes by the name of Rafael, he makes it his mission to get a career-defining scoop by tracking him down. However, the ongoing situation takes several unexpected and increasingly dangerous turns.
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Hard-hitting tale marred by some banal Hollywood tropes
Under Fire is one of a string of “American journalist covering political instability in a third world country” movies to have been released during the 1980s. The other entries in this cycle include Missing (1982), The Year of Living Dangerously (also 1982), The Killing Fields (1984), Salvador (1986) and Witness in the War Zone (1987). Out of all of these films, Under Fire is most readily linked with Oliver Stone’s Salvador by virtue of the fact that both were set in real-life Central American civil wars which took place between dictatorial governments and communist-backed revolutionary forcers.
However, while Under Fire won a lot of contemporary critical acclaim, it hasn’t aged quite as well as its “successor”. That’s not to say that it’s a bad movie or even anything less than a good one; it’s just that it doesn’t quite rival the later film’s visceral impact and occasionally trips over into banal Hollywood tropes.
The main example of the latter issue is the rather melodramatic love triangle involving Claire (played by Joanna Cassidy) flitting between her husband Alex (Gene Hackman) and photojournalist Russell (Nick Nolte). When the surrounding conflict contains enough drama to fill an entire film (or, for that matter, several films) on its own, there’s really no need to fall back on this sort of threadbare subplot. Far too much time is devoted to it and far too little to the infinitely more interesting dynamic between Russell and his buddy Oates (Ed Harris), a mercenary who opts to fight on the side of Somoza’s brutal regime. The latter tale of a friendship tested by political and ethical differences had a lot of potential and it frankly feels rather under-utilised when it has been reduced to a handful of moments scattered throughout the lengthy runtime.
However, leaving aside this aspect and the intermittently clunky manner in which the dialogue spoon-feeds the viewer, Under Fire still works well as a depiction of the chaos and devastation of guerrilla warfare. Roger Spottiswoode (who later helmed the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies) has always been a journeyman director who doesn’t do anything radical with the camera or otherwise assert any distinctive cinematic voice. Nonetheless, he can clearly put together riveting action sequences and get believable performances from his cast. The inherent sense of ever-present danger in being a war correspondent is effectively evoked through numerous scenes of shocking (albeit not overly graphic) violence and knife-edge tension, the best of which include two frantic escapes from military patrols who choose (for one reason or another) to put them in their crosshairs.
The overall story arc involving the search for the mysterious Rafael is also interesting in the way in which it heads off in one or two unexpected directions. While, as with the later Salvador, the film was (understandably) shot in Mexico rather than its subject country, the gritty production values are believable. Nonetheless, the best aspects of here are the performances. Nick Nolte gives another of those haggard, weatherbeaten performances which became his stock and trade over the years. Gene Hackman’s slick, limelight-obsessed charismatic provides a fascinating contrast to his gruff rival. However, it is Ed Harris who steals the movie in his supporting role as a mercenary whose easygoing affability barely conceals a breathtaking lack of any moral compass. Joanna Cassidy is fine but her character, while admittedly fairly progressive by 1980s standards, feels somewhat marginalised in comparison to her male counterparts.
Under Fire doesn’t quite warrant its reputation but it is still, by and large, a gripping and hard-hitting tale set within of one of the more regrettable chapters in Central American history.
Runtime: 128 mins
Dir: Roger Spottiswoode
Script: Clayton Frohman, Ron Shelton
Starring: Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy, Ed Harris, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Richard Masur, René Enríquez
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This restoration is visually sharp enough but the colours seem to be on the flat side. However, the audio is excellent and really immerses the viewer in the thick of combat.
There are two commentary tracks available on this disc, one with director Roger Spottiswoode, Assistant Editor Paul Seydor and Photo-Journalist Matthew Naythons and Film Historian Nick Redman, and the other with Music Producer Bruce Botnick, Music Editor Kenny Hal and Film Historians Jeff Bond, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. For the purposes of this review, I opted to listen to the track with Spottiswoode et al.
The director makes for lively company as he regales us on the trials and tribulations of making the film. One of the elephants originally hired for the opening sequence (set in Africa but shot in Mexico) belonged to Tippi Hedren. However, when the stunt crew heard about this, they backed out of filming without any explanation. It had turned out that this particular elephant was infamous for demolishing trucks! Much of it was shot within a large area of the Mexican town of Oaxaca which was decorated to look like war-torn Nicaragua and a number of the soldier extras were hired from the country’s military. However, while they added an undeniable extra layer of authenticity, they discovered that one of the soldiers went around carrying a live bullet in their gun on set. Moreover, this discovery occurred just before they commenced filming on a scene when one of the main characters (I won’t reveal who for fear of spoilers) was shot!
Photographer Matthew Naythons (who was in the real-life Nicaraguan Revolution as well as in Saigon in 1975 and Jonestown in 1978) also discusses his own real-life scary experiences. Interestingly, he mentions that seeing things through a camera stopped him from getting too emotionally involved in all of the harrowing events which he documented.
Joanna Cassidy Remembers Under Fire
A very brief (3-minute) interview with actress Joanna Cassidy, who (as the title suggests) talks about her experiences of making the film.
The extras are rounded out by a trailer and collector’s booklet.
Under Fire is a good, gripping movie marred slightly by its love triangle aspect. Fans will find this to be a decent, if not quite spectacular, release.