Well-filmed but politically naive Nicaraguan revolution film that pulls its punches and settles for melodrama
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Cast: Nick Nolte (Russell Price), Gene Hackman (Alex Grazier), Joanna Cassidy (Claire Stryder), Ed Harris (Oates), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Marcel Jazy), Richard Masur (Hub Kittle), René Enríquez (President Anastasio Somoza Debayle), Hamilton Camp (Regis)
In 1979 Nicaragua was torn apart by revolution as the regime of right-wing President Somaza was challenged – and eventually overthrown – by the Sandinata National Liberation Front (FSLN), a coalition of left-wing revolutionaries. The US largely threw in its lot with the Somaza government until its appalling human rights record – and the outrage at the murder of journalist Bill Stewart, which was caught on camera – led to it withdrawing aid and the collapse of the regime. Not that it led to peace in the country, as Raegan’s government promptly began supporting the right-wing Contra rebels (but that’s another story).
A version of this is bought to the screen in Roger Spottiswoode’s earnest but slightly naïve film which tries to walk the walk but largely pulls its punches. Here Bill Stewart is translated into Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman) whose journalist ex-wife Claire Stryder (Joanna Cassidy) is in love with his best friend war photographer Russell Price (Nick Nolte). Price and Stryder are embedded in Nicaragua and find their sympathies growing for the left-wing revolutionaries – and their hackles rising at some of the actions of their country.
That “some” is the key here. For all Under Fire would like to be a firebrand political film – a sort of Battle of Algiers by way of All the President’s Men – it’s a film that continually pulls its punches. When compared to the brutal honesty Missing (a year earlier) looked at America’s bungled, self-serving and short-sighted foreign policy in Latin America, bashing any communist leaning revolutionary, even if meant propping up blood-soaked dictators, Under Fire looks very tame indeed.
Only the barest information and context is given to American policy. The only two villainous representatives of American policy we see are carefully distanced from the government. Oates, played with empathy-free gusto by Ed Harris, is a mercenary as happy driving trucks as he is executing POWs. The CIA’s man-on-the-ground is not even American – instead he’s a supercilious, lecherous Frenchman played with awkwardness by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Trintignant gets the closest anyone gets to a political speech, pointing out today’s sympathetic left-wing revolutionaries are tomorrow’s Stalinist purgers. But he’s always a degree separate from official American policy.
Instead, America remains the innocent here. The implication is the true decision makers don’t realise what’s going on, on the ground. It’s only the murder of Alex – and the smuggling out of Russell’s photos showing his execution – that leads to America having its eyes opened and withdrawing its support. This neatly lets everyone off the hook. Neither does the film dare suggest the hypocrisy of a country pouring money and arms into the bloody Somaza regime for years, only stirring when one innocent American journalist is killed. Not once does the film challenge the unpleasant truths that lie behind a statement made by a Nicaraguan: “if we had killed an American journalist years ago perhaps you might have done something”.
Instead, the film settles for a slightly naïve romance of the largely decent, young and sympathetic rebels vs brutish Government soldiers. The rebels are all plucky kids – like the young man and would-be baseball player Russell and Claire follow through a street battle in Leon (naturally, he’s shot by Oates, in the back of all places). Either that or decent, wise figures who would never consider sullying their hands the way the government forces do. It all feels a long way from the mutual brutalities of Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers or the (admittedly spittle-mouthed) fury of Oliver Stone’s Salvador.
After a while you start to feel Nicaragua is really a backdrop for a half-hearted romance between two journalists who re-discover their idealism under fire. The sense that the film could be set anywhere really is backed up by it’s opening in the Chad civil war, which is explored in fifteen minutes in the same cursory depth as the Nicaragua revolution. It’s all exotic backdrop for a drama about whether Russell and Claire can get over the guilt of sort-of betraying Alex (although Claire and Alex are already separated by the time they get it-on) and convert their affair into something more meaningful.
Truth be told all three journalists are thin characters, invested with more depth than they deserve by three very strong actors. Nolte is at his gravelly best, scruffy but impassioned, righteous anger bubbling not far under the surface. Cassidy turns a character that could have easily been “the woman” into a dedicated, intelligent and inspiring professional. Hackman finds beats of self-doubt and sadness in an anchorman worried he’s left what he’s loved (personally and professionally) behind.
Spottiswoode films with sweep and energy – helped by a very good score by Jerry Goldsmith and some impressive recreations (sanitised as they are) of street clashes in Nicaragua. But the story never takes flight and its political edge gets far too blunted. Even the murder of Alex is turned into melodrama, the focus quickly shifting to a wild chase for Russell to smuggle his film out of the country to end the Somaza government claims that the killers were the rebels not his soldiers.
It’s where the film goes wrong, settling for melodrama and romance where it should be angry. In the end it’s a romantic film, where American policy is misguided for the right reason and good triumphs. The cheering crowds that end the film ring especially hollow considering the continued violence that plagued the country throughout most of the 80s. It’s a solid thriller, but a flawed film.