BR: Under Fire (1983)

November 4, 2014 | By


UnderFire1983_BRFilm: Near-Perfect

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  October 14, 2014

Genre:  War / Drama / Action

Synopsis: Three journalists encounter brutality and murder during the Nicaraguan Civil War in 1979.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary #1: director Roger Spottiswoode, assistant editor Paul Seydor, photo journalist & film consultant Mathew Naythons, and film historian & producer Nick Redman / Audio Commentary #2: film music historian & journalist Jeff Bond, music editor Kenny Hall, music producer & mixer Bruce Botnick, film historian & producer, Nick Redman, film historian Julie Kirgo / Isolated stereo music and music & effects track / Interview: “Joanna Cassidy remembers “Under Fire” / Behind-the-scenes stills gallery by photo journalist and film consultant Matthew Naythons / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.





One of the best dramas concerning war photographers, Under Fire was loosely inspired by the real-life death of ABC reporter Bill Stewart, murdered alongside translator Juan Espinoza by Nicaragua’s National Guard in 1979.

Taking place during the final moments of the Somoza regime that same year, Ron Shelton’s fictional film story is an adult drama in which photographer Russell Price (Nick Nolte) has fallen for fellow photographer Claire (Joanna Cassidy), girlfriend of best friend / news reporter / Bill Stewart variant Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman). It’s a love triangle told with sincerity, subtleties, a wry sense of humour, and minimal clichés as the film tracks Russell’s globe-trotting work from Africa to Nicaragua, where he meets and works with colleagues Alex and Claire, combing through battle-scarred streets and travelling to remote jungle haciendas to find the mysterious leftist rebel leader Rafael.

Working against them is a French spy (Jean-Louis Trintigant making his English language debut), a disingenuous P.R. aide (Richard Masur), assorted bands of trigger-happy guardsmen, and an American mercenary named Oates (Ed Harris – with hair!) whom Russell knows from prior global hot spots. Oates represents the coldest type of crisis manager: an apolitical freelancer lacking any humanistic traits whatsoever who goes where the action resides, and the monetary rewards are considerable.

Incredibly (or perhaps because of its cynical / realistic critique of the American foreign policy of supporting a wholly corrupt regime, not unlike Iraq’s Saddam Hussein), Under Fire wasn’t a box office success, and its reputation as a solid drama evolved from home video viewings and cable TV airings.

The death of reporter Bill Stewart – broadcast on TV after footage of his murder was smuggled out of Nicaragua – is largely credited for ending American support of the Somoza regime, and as one of the characters wryly cites in the film, it took the death of an American to topple a despotic family.

Shelton’s script – reworked from a prior version by Clayton Frohman (2008’s Defiance) – is lean and filled with marvelous lines which, as Julie Kirgo repeatedly points out in one of the Blu-ray’s commentary tracks and her liner notes, reflect a love triangle told through adult lenses, and how much is said simply through physical performances.

Roger Spottiswoode (The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper) had wanted to establish a steady directing career, and had hoped Under Fire would push him to A-level studio productions, and in spite of under-performing at the box office, the film did prove he could handle kinetic drama, especially the action scenes where Mexican streets were redone as alleys ruined from brutal urban warfare.

Spottiswoode’s own background as an editor – he co-edited Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), and Walter Hill’s superb Hard Times (1975) – may have guaranteed each edit was seamless, but his instincts as a superb visual choreographer make a dangerous rooftop shootout and Russell’s desperate flight from murderous guardsmen in the finale exceptionally thrilling, if not a vivid representation of a photographer working in a war zone.

The aforementioned cast is perfect – there’s no sour or weak note in the cast, even from bit players Holly Palance (The Omen, TV’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not!) and Elpidia Carillo (Salvador, Predator) – and the details are so vivid there’s never a sense the street scenes and jungles treaded by the journalists are constructed sets. (Perhaps the finest detail is the simplest: Nolte wearing a trio of cameras dinged, scuffed, and taped up, making it clear Russell’s a shutterbug who’s seen and been through numerous life-threatening scrapes.)


The Blu-ray

Previously available on DVD from MGM, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition is very much the result of a collective love among the label’s team and its associates for the film and composer Jerry Goldsmith. It’s inarguably one of his best scores, and perhaps his best fusion of orchestra and electronics when the latter isn’t a dominant and dated component. (The composer’s increased usage of electronics in the 1980’s tended to yield variable results, and while some fans have great affection for works such as Runaway and Hoosiers, they haven’t aged as well as Under Fire.)

TT’s Blu comes with an isolated score track which integrates the album cues (themselves edited from still-lost master tapes) and surviving sections from a music & effects mix – the best way to currently present a full score. The LP was and remains a great album, but it offers different mixes and edits of the score, and there are many great cues that remain available only within the M&E mix.

Augmenting the music track is a lively commentary track moderated by Nick Redman, Kirgo, historian / journalist Jeff Bond, and Goldsmith’s longtime music editor Kenny Hall and music producer / mixer Bruce Botnick. It’s a broad career overview of the composer, the score’s creation, and many, many anecdotes about Goldsmith as a humble but self-aware master craftsman. Redman’s expert moderating also ensures Hall and Botnick’s contributions are also spotlighted, and there’s some fascinating background on the score’s recording, Pat Metheny’s gorgeous solos, and the final mix supervised by Botnick which ‘saved’ both the score and the integrity of its composer.

Redman also moderates a second track with director Spottiswoode, assistant editor Paul Seydor, and photo journalist / film consultant Matthew Naythons. While the music commentary will please film music fans, the filmmaker track – one of the best ever recorded – is packed with lively anecdotes, but the real star among its participants is Spottiswoode and his often hysterical stories, especially those involving cinematographer John Alcott, who filmed Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980), plus Spottiswoode’s own directorial debut Terror Train (arguably the most luxuriously photographed CanCon slasher), the visually frigid CanCon non-thriller The Disappearance (1977), and the Cold War espionage thriller No Way Out (1987), his last work.

Co-star Cassidy appears in a very short video interview, and although her comments are minimal (perhaps this is merely an extract from a longer interview conducted for a future Twilight Time release?), she shares her affection for a film that gave her strongest role. (Cassidy would later reunite with Hackman in the Cold War thriller The Package in 1989, but there’s something satisfying about her performance here – perhaps because she was cast to play an attractive, mature, wry woman who could shoot pictures in dangerous locations just as good as any man.)

The remaining extras include the original theatrical trailer, production stills taken by Naythons (which include a few shots of screenwriter Shelton, himself on location to shoot some second unit material), and Kirgo’s appreciative essay.

Under Fire was one of several war correspondent productions produced during the 1980s, including The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), The Killing Fields (1984), Salvador (1986), and much later A Show of Force (1990), and the TV movie Frankie’s House (1992). Another journalist-in-Nicaragua drama was the low budget Last Plane Out (1983).



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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