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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Under Fire (1983)


Starring: Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Richard Masur and Ed Harris
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £16.99


Certificate: 15
Release Date: 27 June 2019

A ménage a trois in the midst of civil war orchestrated by the USA. This is the unseemly scenario of Under Fire, Roger Spottiswoode’s classic study of personal relationships overtaken by political machinations, studiously and implacably indifferent to all things human. Oligarchic market control rarely reveals its puppeteering hand directly but scrims itself behind ideological banners and patriotic military commitment. Humanity is always expendable.

Nick Nolte’s Russel Price is the ultimate observer, a photo-journalist with cameras around his neck and therefore dangerous to the entrenched power structure of Nicaraguan government and the Sandinista Rebels in the people’s revolution of 1979 - and the oligarchy behind the curtain.

A picture worth a thousand words is never more profoundly depicted than here. When President Carter saw the images on which this story is based, one of his thousand words during cutting off aid to the Nicaraguan regime was ‘Barbaric…’ Things got out of control for US foreign policy for awhile. War- business-Napoleons were frustrated in selling their message, that to be against US interests is to be Communist. But on the Nicaraguan street level of Under Fire these lofty banners seem mockingly secondary to flesh and blood reality.

The official sheep herd agit-prop is always disconnected from the humanity it holds hostage. So goes the trope of necessary war: if Nicaragua falls then who the hell knows where the dominoes will stop? Mexico? Texas? Disneyland? Such is the baggage loaded onto a people’s uprising in Nicaragua and explains the ruthlessness of Ed Harris’s likable special operative with a sniper rifle. He’s just doing a job for God and country. Just don’t get too close to his ‘contacts’, though, you could get wet.

In this swirling mortal storm, Nolte’s attraction and affection for reporter Claire Stryder (Joanna Cassidy) seems almost an obvious borrowing from Graham Greene. That he likes her husband, senior journalist played by Gene Hackman, makes for a ménage as existentially complex, painful and disturbing as the civil war roiling around them.

For Russel Price observing becomes impossible without involvement. For Alex Grazier (Hackman) being the knowledgeable honcho with the most experience, parlays nothing in this society of daily violence and capricious execution. Death can come most naturally, offhandedly so. The Reaper likes that. He knows it scares us the most.

To say more, and perhaps I’ve said too much already, the story has roots in reality, real headlines, real nightly news reports significant enough to affect foreign policy in the Carter administration—and provide us with background for one of the reasons or rationales President Carter is labeled a weak Commander in Chief by both Republican and Democrat spokes-holes bleating for the hallowed war machine industry and the transnational roundtables they toady to.

Spottiswoode caught agit-prop flak for this movie but it didn’t stifle his assignments. He continued a busy career to go on to the James Bond in Viet Nam epic Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) which didn’t seem to bother any ideologue at all but then the Bank of America had been already operating in Hanoi for decades (well before the war ended) and we liked this Communist republic now and they liked us and gee whiz, dad, is this why we spent twenty years fighting the Viet Nam war? Well… yes son, and it proves that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had a profound sense of irony lost on many ‘little thinkers’. Roger Spottiswoode too. On cold rainy nights to have both Under Fire and Tomorrow Never Dies in his oeuvre must make Spottiswoode’s philosophy of film, feel downright emeritus post doctoral. He is the big dog on the front porch of political cinema. Another reason to see and ponder Under Fire. The filmic range of terrain Spottiswoode has politically traversed make him the point scout for all of us who would follow the genre.

Spottiswoode had worked for Sam Peckinpah on that auteur’s chipped masterpiece Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1974), shot in Mexico, and maintained amigo status with the hard working crew mates there. In Under Fire he tapped these friendships and, working with state and federal hosts managed to secure a square mile of urban, suburban and rural region for a mammoth set. It gave him and his esteemed director of cinematography, John Alcott (no less than 2001: A Space Odyssey and the miraculous Barry Lyndon) the easy pretext for macros and fly-overs that convince us virtually we are in the real place. The virtual space achievement here is another reason this Blu-ray is worth the coin.

But there is more than scope, there is inner vision worthy of Camus or Sartre and yes, even Martin Buber. The human interaction with depersonalizing catastrophe, forces collective introspection and there is no actor more worthy of this civil war of meaning than Nick Nolte. Spottiswoode went after him because he felt Nolte was the only actor for the role and he was right. Nolte’s cigarette-ad handsomeness is counterpointed with a true actor’s instrument of unwavering search for truth. Truth is hard to come by in Under Fire but Nolte does not stop searching. And maybe that is the message for us. Some of us may not believe in heaven but nevertheless we get to be the Hound of Heaven. Just like Nick Nolte.

The Jerry Goldsmith score (featuring jazz guitar legend Pat Metheny) will ring familiar to those with the ears to hear. Quentin Tarrantino homages it to great effect in Django Unchained (2012) and some call it the composer’s best of best.

The Eureka immaculate 1080p engineering presents Under Fire better than when it was projected with varying quality in first run theatres back in the day. Extras are abundant and worth exploring. The director and other significant players provide one track; Music Mixer-Producer Bruce Botnick and Music Editor Kenny Hal, along with film historians Jeff Bond, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman treat the music art in a separate track; both commentaries are worth exploring; and Joanna Cassidy gives a brief but revealing thumbnail of what is probably the most superlative screen experience of her career.

Great actors make it look easy. That is their greatness. Spottiswoode and screen writers, Clayton Frohman and Ron Shelton achieve a vision that lives, a virtual reality that approximates the ambiguities of our day and keeps our feet to the fire fuelled on burning illusions. That’s why Under Fire is a great movie.


John Huff

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