Thursday, March 18, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Under Fire

When I pulled Roger Spottiswoode's Under Fire off the shelf recently to see how it stood up, it had been 15 years since I'd last seen it. In the interim, I'd owned it on video (which I never watched) and when DVDs came along, I replaced the video with the DVD. Yet, again it sat on my shelf for another nine years until finally this past weekend I rewatched it. Does it still stand up as the thought provoking, well-made political thriller I took it for when I saw it originally in 1983? Yes and no. The problem is that when it came out in 1983, a scant four short years after the film's events - the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 - it was close enough to the events of that violent and bloody tumult to be a perfect example of the first draft of history. And first drafts always need a rewrite.

Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman and Joanna Cassidy play American journalists (photo journalist in Nolte's case) who are as rootless as gypsies as they move from crisis to crisis in search of a great story or image. Nolte is crafted very much in the Humphrey Bogart mold from Casablanca: a neutral observer who refuses to take any sides; Hackman is the old veteran who is ready to move behind the news anchor's desk after one more foreign assignment; and Cassidy is the woman in love with both of them. They find themselves in Nicaragua as it blows apart from a revolution that, for all intents and purposes, had begun in the 1930s. As their objectivity drops away, they find themselves starting to take the revolutionaries' side in the chaotic events. Nolte in particular has his journalistic ethics hugely tested when he's asked by the revolutionaries to take a certain photograph that could turn the tide of the revolution.

Partially based on true events (Hackman's character is inspired by US TV journalist Bill Stewart), the film at the time felt ripped from the headlines. It was very well acted by all three leads and contained some great turns by fine character actors: Ed Harris as a soldier of fortune who effortlessly and sometimes accidentally switches sides; Richard Masur as the glib CIA fixer, Hub Kittle; and Jean-Louis Trintignant as a spy working mostly for himself. Today, it still has a timeless quality, but its embracing of the ideals of the Nicaraguan revolutionaries are now somewhat dated. After the Sandinistas took power in 1980, they instituted a series of reforms that were democratically robust, but as soon as pressures from the USA-backed Contras and corruption within the new government started to intrude, they became almost no different, though less violent, than the Somoza regime they overthrew. Between 1982 and 1988, freedom of speech, assembly, press, striking, etc. were suspended. 8,000 people (many former members of Somoza's Guardia) were tried and convicted in speedy trials. Many died in prison.

That's what I mean by the first draft of history. When the film was being written (by Bull Durham's Ron Shelton and Clayton Frohman - co-writer of 2008's Defiance) and produced, the Sandinistas seemed to be on the right road, reforming their torn and sundered country with democratic ideas never considered by Somoza. By the time the film came out in 1983, the state of emergency rules were in place and crackdowns had begun.

Does this mean, then, that this film no longer deserves a place on my shelf? Not at all. The politics may now be very naive, but the film is extremely well-made (beautifully shot by the great cinematographer John Alcott), wonderfully acted and has a great Oscar-nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith. The issues that it explored were little-presented in a major film in 1983. It is in some ways a cautionary tale. Perhaps we as outsiders should take a neutral stance when internal forces (and only internal forces) are at work trying to reshape a country. If those forces start to be supplemented by external ones, or if the internal struggles may lead to an international conflict, we have every right to pick sides and do something about it. This film's characters do just that, for good - or ill.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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