Under Fire (1983) – Film Review
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Cast: Gene Hackman, Nick Nolte, Joana Cassidy
by James Robinson
On its release in 1983 the celebrated American film critic Roger Ebert described Under Fire as ‘one of the best films of the year.’ A high accolade, considering 1983 also saw the release of such iconic movies as Scarface, Return of the Jedi and The Right Stuff. The film, which stars A-listers Gene Hackman and Nick Nolte, also received a couple of Oscar and Bafta nods. Yet somehow it is almost entirely forgotten. Luckily Eureka Entertainment, a label always reliable for digging out lost gems, has delivered this bluray, allowing the film a deserved second look.
Nolte, back when you could understand what he was saying, plays Russell Price, a gung-ho war photographer on assignment in civil war-torn Nicaragua. He’s joined by his friend Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman) a self-regarding TV reporter a little bit out of his depth, and Grazier’s wife, newspaper journalist Claire Stryder (Joanna Cassidy) with whom Price is secretly having an affair. Together they grow increasingly to sympathise with the Sandinista revolutionaries, with predictably unfortunate consequences.
Journalism doesn’t always translate well to the screen. Nobody wants to do any reading while watching a movie, so the journo’s actual product, their newspaper reports, usually end up being left out entirely. Instead you have to concentrate on their adventures in pursuit of the story, which can sometimes seem noble and seedily glamorous, such as in All The President’s Men; or reckless and borderline suicidal, as they quite often do here.
Of course this also makes for a great deal of scope for exciting set-pieces, and Under Fire makes up for a sometimes hokey and overwrought storyline with some well delivered action, including a daring escape from hostile revolutionaries in a press bus and an incredibly tense sequence in which Price and Grazier find themselves lost in a very dangerous part of town. It is in these more action-oriented sequences where the film really comes to life, and it is not surprising that director Roger Spottiswoode would go on to helm a Bond film, delivering the best of the Pierce Brosnan era, Tomorrow Never Dies.
Under Fire was inspired by a real-life incident involving US reporter Bill Stewart, and the darker factual basis of the plot sometimes sits uneasily with its fictitious, less plausible elements. Nevertheless the film is elevated by the committed performances of the cast. Cassidy in particular brings shade and depth to the conflicted Claire Stryder, turning what might have been a straightforward love-interest/femme fatale role into the moral centre of what is otherwise a very macho picture. Ed Harris also crops up from time-to-time as a ruthless American soldier, providing a touch of moral ambiguity, and Jean-Louis Trintignant – now best known for his heartbreaking performance in Michael Haneke’s Amour – steals his every scene as a seedy French spy.
“Doesn’t deserve to be forgotten”
Under Fire arrived at a time when the New Cinema, auteur movies of the 70s were beginning to be usurped by the high concept blockbusters that would come to define the 80s. The film has the gritty look (photographed by legendary cinematographer John Alcott) and unflinching violence of the 70s, but tonally is very much of the new era. The dialogue in particular undermines the senses of realism, often verging on the melodramatic.
But even if the film is by no stretch any kind of lost masterpiece, it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten and has much to recommend it, including a fantastic score from Jerry Goldsmith that’s so good Quentin Tarantino lifted it for his own Django Unchained.
Eureka, as ever, can be relied upon to provide lavish releases for even the most underappreciated movies and this one is no exception. The bluray comes with two entertaining commentaries, along with a trailer and short featurette. The first 2,000 copies will also include a commemorative booklet.