Saturday, December 6, 2014

Under Fire (1983, Roger Spottiswoode)

If that old canard about the Hollywood "liberal bias" were true, I think films like Roger Spottiswoode's Under Fire would be a lot more common than they are.  It just so happens that Twilight Time has, of late, seemingly cornered the market on these few '70s and '80s Hollywood-produced dramas set in war-torn countries in which the U.S. government had a dubious, at best, presence.  

Under Fire depicts journalists Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, and Joanna Cassidy in a Somoza-led Nicaragua on the brink of collapse. Oliver Stone's more pointed Salvador has photojournalist James Woods in an El Salvador torn apart by civil war.  Richard Fleischer's Che is a Che Guevara biopic. And, John Irvin's The Dogs of War examines a soldier-for-hire (Christopher Walken) and his team of mercenaries sent into a fictional African country to overthrow a dictator.  Somewhat amazingly all of these titles have been issued by Twilight Time in quick succession.

Under Fire is an impressively mounted production, with a very fine trio of lead performances--the aforementioned Nolte, Hackman, and Cassidy--supported by a very strong Ed Harris, who is particularly chilling, the great Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Richard Masur.  Jerry Goldsmith contributes one of his most gorgeous and memorable scores, with key support from famed jazz guitarist Pat Matheny. Lastly, but no less important a credit is that of d.p. John Alcott, most renowned for his work as cinematographer for Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining.

Hackman and Cassidy would reunite several years later in Andrew Davis' The Package, also from Orion and also newly released on Blu-ray.

In its set-up and through its second act, I found Under Fire riveting; where it lost impact for me, in contrast to Stone's Salvador and Costa-Gavras' Missing, is when its focus shifts from the political to the personal, from the reality-based situation on the ground in Nicaragua to the fictional love triangle between Nolte, Hackman, and Cassidy. The filmmakers ease up on their criticism of the U.S. government for its support of dictator Somoza and his efforts to put down the leftist Sandinista revolutionary movement in favor of the aforementioned love story and an implausible, cliche-ridden action thriller climax. To be fair, the latter is inspired by the real-life murder of ABC news reporter Bill Stewart.  

The film is at its best and most blood-boiling whenever the shameless, cruel soldier of fortune Harris is onscreen.  He pops up at various times throughout the story, whether in Africa or Central America, and he, along with Trintignant's wealthy French spy / informer, is the stand-in for capitalist greed and indifference, but the film would have been stronger if it were more direct in its critique of the U.S. government and U.S. corporations for their complicity in and profiteering from the crimes of Somoza and his ilk throughout Central and South America.  The great Harris performance is akin to Mickey Rourke a few years earlier in Body Heat, briefly stealing the film out from under its lead actors whenever he's onscreen.

The rabid baseball fan in me loved the film's reference to Nicaraguan native and one-time Major League Baseball star--and Baltimore Oriole, as you can see--Dennis Martinez

Twilight Time's Blu-ray features a handsome, film-like transfer, which does not appear to have unwelcome digital tampering, and contains the requisite isolated score (I listened to my LP of the soundtrack while writing this), as well as Julie Kirgo's informative printed notes, an interview with female lead Joanna Cassidy, an original trailer, a photo gallery, and two audio commentaries with director Spottiswoode, TT's Nick Redman and Kirgo, and other crew members.