Wednesday 14 October 2020

Movie Review: Under Fire (1983)

A tense drama set within Nicaragua's civil war, Under Fire captures the bracing chaos faced by journalists trying to make sense of a revolution in progress.

After covering the civil war in Chad, photojournalist Russell Price (Nick Nolte), and reporters Claire (Joanna Cassidy) and Alex (Gene Hackman) relocate to Nicaragua, where a leftist revolution is threatening to overthrow the US-backed regime of President Anastasio Somoza (René Enríquez). Alex then returns to the US to accept a job as anchor, breaking off a strained relationship with Claire and allowing her to pursue a passionate romance with Russell.

The Nicaraguan rebels, inspired by reclusive leader Rafael, are quickly advancing through the countryside and capturing key towns. Russell meets well-connected French businessman/spy Jazy (Jean-Louis Trintignant), as well as mercenary Oates (Ed Harris). American public relations expert Hub Kittle (Richard Masur) tries to burnish the President's reputation, despite Somoza's infatuation with Miss Panama (Jenny Gago) while the country burns. When rumours of Rafael's death threaten the rebels' progress, Russell and Claire are forced to make decisions that could alter the war's trajectory.

Filmed in Mexico, Under Fire recreates a country convulsing under the pressure of a Cold War fueled revolution. The script by Clayton Frohman and Ron Shelton lends sympathy to the rebels at the expense of the Somoza dictatorship, but is also under no illusions. Frenchman Jazy, at the point of losing everything, is blunt in his assessment of the country's prospects, under any regime.

Meanwhile director Roger Spottiswoode brilliantly evokes the horrific sights and smells of a furious conflict consuming the country. Under Fire captures the disorienting reality of deserted streets littered with destroyed equipment and abandoned dead bodies, civilians sheltering from the horror, the warring factions barely in control of opposite sides of small towns, the combatants themselves unsure where the front lines are. In one scene Russell and Claire, desperate to find a path to safety, encounter two rebels stationed at a street corner who just shrug in disinterested ignorance when asked whether the revolutionaries control that neighbourhood.

As the death count rises, Russell and Claire witness increasing atrocities. Their objectivity erodes and they enter the danger zone where the appeal of taking sides rises. With his cameras and photographs emerging as potent weapons, Russell's exhausted psyche is put to the test, seemingly in a position to wield power but also unaware of his status as a pawn. Alex's unexpected return to Nicaragua threatens to elevate all of Russell's risks into disasters, but just like the endless neighbourhood mazes, more twists await. 

At a running length of 128 minutes, Spottiswoode allows the drama to breathe with adequate time and space afforded for both character development and taut on-the-street action. Nolte, Cassidy and Hackman are provided enough context to round their characters into believable war correspondents, although the romantic entanglements are predictably clunky. Ed Harris as the mercenary Oates has a small but chilling role, the misery of nations providing gainful employment for men happy to kill for a living.

Unblinking, harrowing and riveting, Under Fire radiates with the intensity of infernal combat and impossible dilemmas.

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