Under Fire (1983)

Under Fire (1983)

Taglines: This wasn’t their war but it was their story… and they wouldn’t let it go!

Nicaragua 1979: Star photographer Russel Price covers the civil war against president Somoza. Facing the cruel fighting – people versus army – it’s often hard for him to stay neutral. When the Guerillas have him take a picture of the leader Rafael, who’s believed to be dead, he gets drawn into the happenings. Together with his reporter friends Claire and Alex he has to hide from the army.

Under Fire is a 1983 American political thriller film set during the last days of the Nicaraguan Revolution that ended the Somoza regime in 1979 Nicaragua. It stars Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman and Joanna Cassidy. The musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, which featured well-known jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, was nominated for an Academy Award. The editing by Mark Conte and John Bloom was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Editing.The Film was shot in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca.

Though the film is largely fictional, it was inspired by the murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart and his translator Juan Espinoza by National Guard forces on June 20, 1979. ABC cameraman Jack Clark was shooting “incidental” footage, and caught the entire episode on tape. The footage was shown on national television in the United States and became a major international incident, undermining what remained of dictator Anastasio Somoza’s support. The incident was the final straw for the Carter Administration’s relationship with Somoza, whose regime fell on July 19.

Under Fire (1983)

Review for Under Fire

This is the kind of movie that almost always feels phony, but “Under Fire” feels real. It’s about American journalists covering guerrilla warfare in Central America, and so right away we expect to see Hollywood stars transplanted to the phony jungles of one of those movie nations with made up names. Instead, we see Hollywood stars who create characters so convincing we forget they’re stars. And the movie names names: It’s set in Nicaragua, in 1979, during the fall of the Somoza regime, period.

We meet three journalists who are there to get the story. This is not the first small war they’ve covered, and indeed we’ve already seen them packing up and leaving Africa. Now they’ve got a new story. Nick Nolte is Price, a photographer. Gene Hackman is Grazier, a TV reporter with dreams of becoming an anchorman. Joanna Cassidy is a radio reporter. During the course of the story, Cassidy will fall out of love with Hackman and into love with Nolte. These things happen under deadline pressure. Hackman cares, but not enough to affect his friendship with both of them.

The story is simply told, since “Under Fire” depends more upon moments and atmosphere than on a manufactured plot. During a lull in the action, Hackman heads back for New York and Nolte determines to get an interview with the elusive leader of the guerrillas. He doesn’t get the interview, but he begins to develop a sympathy for the rebel cause. He commits the journalistic sin of taking sides, and it leads him, eventually, to a much greater sin: faking a photograph to help the guerrilla forces.

Under Fire (1983)

That is, of course, wrong. But “Under Fire” shows us a war in which morality is hard to define and harder to practice. One of the key supporting characters in the movie is a mysterious American named Oates (played by Ed Harris). Is he CIA? Apparently. He’s always in the thick of the dirty work, however, and if his conscience doesn’t bother him, Nolte excuses himself for not taking an ethical stand.

There are, in fact, a lot of ethical stands not taken in this movie. It could almost have been written by Graham Greene; it exists in that half-world between exhaustion and exhilaration, between love and cynicism, between covering the war and getting yourself killed. This is tricky ground, and the wrong performances could have made it ridiculous (cf. Richard Gere’s sleek sexual athlete in a similar recent movie based on a Greene novel, “Beyond the Limit”).

The actors in “Under Fire” never step wrong. Nolte is great to watch as the seedy photographer with the beer gut. Hackman never really convinced me that he could be an anchorman, but he did a better thing. He convinced me that he thought he could be one. Joanna Cassidy takes a role that could have been dismissed as “the girl” and fills it out as a fascinating, textured adult. “Under Fire” surrounds these performances with a vivid sense of place and becomes, somewhat surprisingly, one of the year’s best films.

Under Fire Movie Poster (1983)

Under Fire (1983)

Directed by: Roger Spottiswoode
Starring: Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy, Alma Martinez, Holly Palance, Ella Laboriel, Samuel Zarzosa, Jonathan Zarzosa
Screenplay by: Clayton Frohman
Cinematography by: John Alcott
Film Editing by: Mark Conte
Costume Design by: Cynthia Bales
Set Decoration by: Enrique Estévez
Art Direction by: Agustín Ituarte, Toby Carr Rafelson
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Distributed by: Orion Pictures
Release Date: October 21, 1983