January 16, 2019

Under Fire (1983)
Grade: 73/100

Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Stars: Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy

What it's about. Loosely based on a true story. It is 1979, and a civil war in Nicaragua becomes an international news story. The right-wing dictatorship of Somoza (René Enríquez) is opposed by leftist rebels led by the mysterious, never-photographed Rafael (Jorge Zepeda).

Somoza's government is based in the capital, Managua. The rebels successively take the villages surrounding Mangua, placing Somoza's regime in peril. Four Americans head to Nicaragua, where the action is. Three are journalists, and one (Ed Harris) is a mercenary paid by Somoza.

The journalists are photographer Nick Nolte, television reporter Gene Hackman, and writer Joanna Cassidy. Cassidy has a former relationship with Nolte, and a present relationship with Hackman. She breaks it off with Hackman and again becomes Nolte's lover, which of course upsets Hackman, whose ambitions of becoming a network news anchor are incompatible with Cassidy's presence in the field.

Familiar face Richard Masur shows up as a hapless press agent for Somoza.

How others will see it. Under Fire was a box office dud, but it drew positive reviews from most critics, and received nominations in diverse categories at several prestigious film festivals. The Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTA respectively nominated the film for Best Score (Jerry Goldsmith), Best Supporting Actor (Hackman), and Best Editing. Additionally, the National Society of Film Critics nominated the movie for Best Actress (Cassidy), Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a modest 6K user votes, compared with the 840K user vote total of a more famous 1983 movie, Return of the Jedi. The user rating of 7.1 out of 10 is respectable, and unusually for an American movie, received most of its votes from non-U.S. viewers, who grade it slightly higher. A stereotypical American feature on the Nicaraguan Civil War would focus on the Ed Harris character, and transform him into a hero opposing murderous terrorists.

The imdb user reviews are predominantly positive, hailing the cast and the unexpected (but welcome) slant favoring the "freedom fighters." Reaganites, who despised the successor Daniel Ortega government, need not bother to watch the movie. It will only make them irate.

How I felt about it. A minor theme of the movie is the American characters' belief in their own immunity from political murder. Whether in Africa or in Nicaragua, Nolte, Hackman, Harris, and Cassidy all presume that, regardless of factional strife or immediate chaos, no harm will come to them from either the government forces or the insurgents. At least until one of them is shot.

This self-belief of invulnerability is epitomized by a scene in which a baseball-loving insurgent (Jorge Santoyo) is shot by a sniper, while standing next to Nolte and Cassidy. The normal instinct would be to flee for shelter from sniper fire. Nolte and Cassidy do not. The scene is believable only because:
1) Nolte and Cassidy are naive Americans,
2) They are also naive journalists,
3) Their willingness to trade safety for scoops is already established, and 4) Nolte suspects that Harris is the sniper, and won't shoot Nolte out of professional courtesy. The same reason that Nolte won't turn Harris over to the insurgents.

Another curiosity is the character of Jazy. He is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, an actor little known to American viewers, but famous among French classic cinemaphiles. Jazy seems to know that the insurgents will soon win, and that they will likely murder him, yet continues to remain in the country. It is true that he has the romantic company of Miss Panama (Jenny Gago), but saving your skin would seem to be the priority. Jazy's death, with Nolte and Cassidy as approving witnesses, is a strictly cinematic moment.

Obviously, Harris' character is symbolic, a composite of American mercenaries willing and eager to back brutal dictators in return for money. Thus, it is forgivable that Nolte keeps encountering Harris under strange circumstances.

But overall, Under Fire is a remarkably credible insight into the fall of a banana republic led by a military-backed pro-Western dictator. The story is fictional, but fact-based. An American journalist (Bill Stewart) was murdered by Somoza forces, the murder was captured on film by another American journalist and soon televised, and that Somoza fled the country (although perhaps not with Miss Panama).

Under Fire raises the question, should a journalist become impartial (e.g. take the side of the rebels) if their cause is just? Even if their government (i.e. the Carter Administration) at least nominally supports the dictator? The movie leaves no doubt as to what the answer is. Portray the rebels as the heroes, and the dictator as the villain. This conclusion was controversial in 1983, but hardly so today, with the major U.S. news networks blatantly taking either the liberal or conservative side on a consistent basis.