Roger Spottiswode/ USA/ 1983/ 128 mins
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 17 Jun 2019
The eighties was populated with an inexorable supply of Central American conflict for studios to tastefully replicate on the big screen. Under Fire represents a smaller niche which blossomed from the war/action genre and together with Guatemala, Indonesia, Grenada and El Salvador, Nicaragua provided material for several iterations of this war correspondent story.
Initially what appears to be a love triangle centres on Claire, played by Blade Runner’s Joanna Cassidy, torn between fellow journo Alex – a low-key Gene Hackman – and award-winning photographer Russell, (a rakish Nick Nolte). Unremarkable scenes of our threesome enjoying local hospitality are punctuated with short sojourns onto street corners and rooftops all in search of that elusive exclusive image or word. The relative luxury that the main protagonists experience is all for nought as the outside world appears to be converging upon them as they endeavour to be proximate to the action amidst the narrow streets and rubble of Managua during the civil uprising.
The Ron Shelton script from a story by Clayton Frohman unveils the machinations of the US in the many and varied milieu into which it inserted itself throughout the period of the red menace. Browns and oranges dominate the colour palette as one time Sam Peckinpah editor Roger Spottiswoode sets the action in the Mexican village of Chiapas which replicates the little dwellings where the FSLN hid. Away from the guerilla action Oaxaca City stands in for Managua’s opulence hidden behind imposing gateways guarded by disinterested yet unpredictable government drones.
Nolte is surprisingly convincing as the eager and dogged Price who captures the conflict and fellow colleague up close and personal. Ed Harris pops up as a wise-cracking yet amoral mercenary who represents capitalism seeking opportunity in the midst of poverty and death. His fleeting appearances provide a little conflict with Nolte’s humane photographer but this is eventually abandoned in favour of focusing on a shocking moment derived from events of the time.
Under Fire would not have been contemplated in the current political climate but what is even more remarkable is that Orion Pictures studio head Eric Pleskow green-lit the project with the fore-knowledge that the box office returns would be less than buoyant. Hackman was a bonafide A-lister in the early eighties and so his appearance, as what is essentially the third lead, highlights the attraction of such a politically provocative and intellectually substantial project.