Since we’re rolling with unstoppable momentum towards Hallmark Card’s favorite holiday (AKA “Valentine’s Day” for non-cynics) it seems apropos to highlight romanticism in all its iterations, from star-crossed protagonists to world events that draw lovers closer just as it tears them apart. Nothing is more tragic and pregnant with romantic possibilities than a good war story, and while 1983’s Under Fire promises all those ingredients on paper, its delivery feels more like a spent bullet.
Screenwriter Ron Shelton (best known today as director of White Men Can’t Jump, Play It to the Bone and Bull Durham) specializes in love triangles, and he offers up a meaty menu with Nick Nolte as a tough-as nails freelance photographer, Gene Hackman as his bromantic – once joined at the hip – reporter/partner for Time Magazine – and miscast Joanna Cassidy as the woman/journalist who comes between them. Nolte is pitch perfect casting as the “hopped up on battle high” magazine cover boy who slowly gains a conscience, and Hackman is great as always as the “war weary” reporter from the trenches being groomed for a comfy network news desk. But Cassidy, who definitely has the “look” of a woman who can hold her own in this milieu, is not up to the task in the Acting Department. There’s no arguing that the actress presents a sinewy, carnivorous sexiness (check her out as the snakedancing replicant from Blade Runner) that producers sought vainly to try and soften by overapplying her makeup and outfitting her in feminine dresses that are just plain inappropriate for a field reporter covering battle-torn Nicaragua. The result is a stilted, flat performance that makes the viewer question what all the fuss is about between Nolte and Hackman. (It doesn’t help her argument for legitimacy that she is – for better or worse – bra-less in every scene).
But enough about casting and costuming. Under Fire was made to question ethics and morality as American journalists are dropped into the center of a banana republic revolution. It’s 1979, and our three musketeers are part of the ragtag cadre of cynical, bitter, but damn good journalists who have covered everything from Vietnam to the battle of Chad. Word is things are getting explosive “down there,” and the hotshot photographer and journalist with gunpowder in her veins are “jonesing” to see some of the action. Hackman’s love affair with Cassidy is on the outs, and he tries to win her back with serenades on piano in smoky foreign bars and promises of a real home in the Hamptons. But she knows he’s being courted by the networks, and her future will be relegated to housewife duties in the states. She joins Nolte in Managua, where they realize as soon as their boots hit the ground that this is a hotbed of corruption, powerfully fueled by the US.
The rebel forces are led by a visibly absent but nonetheless galvanizing character named Rafael who offers serious problems for President Somoza and his corrupt government. While Somoza offers tea parties and photo ops with Miss Nicaragua, men, women and children are being slaughtered in the streets. As Rafael’s Sandanistas slowly gain ground, methodically taking over bigger and bigger towns, word arrives that Rafael has been killed. This development would be a huge feather in Somoza’s cap that would bolster the flow of money from the States. Since no photo has ever been taken of Rafael (his visage is painted and stamped like Banksy street art everywhere) Nolte makes it his mission to find and photograph the elusive rebel, dead or alive.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Nolte and Cassidy respond to an invitation by Rafael to visit him in his mountain village, where his minions request Nolte photograph the leader to quell the rumors of his demise. Unfortunately, Rafael really is dead, and his closest confidants want Nolte to pose the body as if alive. Nolte’s crisis of conscience comes to a head when he decides to go along with the plot, ultimately aiding the Sandinistas. His photograph of the posed body becomes an international sensation, so much so that Hackman returns to the scene from his lofty anchor spot to have Nolte help him secure an exclusive interview with Rafael. Cassidy and Nolte tussle with the secret, as well as each other (Hackman discovers photographs Nolte took of a semi-nude Cassidy and realizes they are “getting it on” (his words) as they try to figure out whether they should reveal their unethical actions). A full confession late at night in a courtyard sporting a statue of Somoza brings the two men to blows – Hackman is appalled at the duo’s involvement and ultimate intervention. As a disappointed Hackman and Nolte drive around the increasingly dangerous Managua, Hackman steps out of the car to ask for directions when – well, suffice it to say this incident, based on a real shooting in Nicaragua of a reporter — was the impetus for the screenplay.
The story does offer up some colorful characters that add diffusion and subtle greys to the mostly black and white/good guys-bad guys narrative. Ed Harris is great as always as a mercenary who jumps from side to side depending on who pays the most. One instant he and Nolte are back-slapping and sharing war stories, the next he has his crosshairs set on Nolte and Cassidy fleeing from a firefight. There’s also a double agent played by the snakey French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant as Marcel Jazy. Nolte and Cassidy are never quite sure what side he’s on. Jazy seems to be financially backed by the government, but he helps get rebel sympathizer Nolte out of jail. These characters are the most intriguing and help give the story more heft than it largely exhibits.
Director Roger Spottiswoode does an admirable job with the action sequences, but seems helpless when working with his actors, forcing them to fend for themselves for better (Nolte, Hackman, Harris) or worse (Cassidy).
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of Under Fire is as crisp and pristine as all of their previous releases. Photographed by DP John Alcott (one of Kubrick’s favorite cinematographers) the framing and coverage have a good, docu-style feel, even when the dialogue is a bit precious and pulls the viewer out of the authentic look. While Twilight Time DVDs tend to be sparse in the extras department, Under Fire boasts some impressive additions, including several audio commentary tracks from Director Spottiswoode, Editor Paul Seydor, Film Historian Nick Redman as well as Music Editor Kenny Hall (working from an Academy Award nominated score from Jerry Goldsmith). There’s also a short piece from Joanna Cassidy remembering filming, which is, well – let’s say, more interesting than her performance.
Passions may have run high on the script pages, but not always does that transfer to the screen. For your Valentine’s Day viewing, you could do worse than Under Fire, but if you’re determined to watch a war film on February 14th, go for A Farewell to Arms, or For Whom the Bell Tolls. You can’t go wrong with the original war romantic, Ernest Hemingway.
Under Fire is available through Screen Entertainment’s Twilight Time label and Shop TCM as a Limited Edition release.