Under Fire comes to Blu-ray

Monday, 17 June 2019 01:00

“Under Fire” is an Oscar-nominated political thriller revolving around journalists caught up in the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution. Russel Price (Nick Nolte) is a fearless photographer who gets meshed in a love triangle with reporter Claire Stryder (Joanna Cassidy) and his friend, her husband Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman). Stepping right into in a war zone, in a battle between the government and Sandinista rebels, Price loses his objectivity, becoming personally involved in the struggles. This release by Eureka marks its UK debut on Blu-ray.

With cinematography by John Alcott (“2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Barry Lyndon”) it’s backed by one of Jerry Goldsmith’s greatest scores - which was nominated for an Academy Award – it features well-known jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. It was later sampled by Quentin Tarantino in “Django Unchained”). The film is considered one of director Roger Spottiswoode’s greatest achievements, being a complex political thriller with hints of “Casablanca”.

The first 2,000 copies include a 2,000 word booklet by scriptwriter and novelist Scott Harrison, which goes into the real-life events behind the story, and this review turns to this source material for background. It details the beginning of events when, on the morning of 10 January 1978, Nicaraguan journalist and publisher Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Cardenal was murdered in the capital city of Managua while making his way to work.

Although the murder was placed at the feet of members of the Nicaraguan government, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect for its militant opposition, the Frende Sandinsta de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN). The FSLN was founded at the beginning of the 1960s and originally named after the Algerian resistance fighters – Front de Liberation Nationale – but after pnly a few months it rebranded, incorporating the name of revolutionary general Augusto Sandino into its title, apparently at the insistence of party founder Carlos Fonseca.

It had been attempting to fuel a revolution against the Somoza government since 1975. The death of Chamarro was the trigger they had been waiting for. The country erupted into chaos, rioters looted government-owned businesses, setting buildings ablaze as they swept through the cities. The National Guard was called in to quell the violence, but such aggressive counter-measures only exacerbated an explosive situation. The FSLN moved in for the kill, attacking first the Rivas barracks, then the city of Nueva Segovia the following month.

By June 1979 the ranks of the FSLN had grown to staggering proportions, as members of the Nicaraguan public moved to join in the rebellion against the oppressive Somoza regime. Soon, the cities of Chontales, Diriamba and Masaya were under socialist control. Within weeks, Nicaragua was in ruins. Casualties were in excess of 50,000 with the death toll continuing to escalate. Somoza DeBayle fled the country, his party defeated, so as to avoid imprisonment. He fled first to Miami, then later to Paraguay.

Peace in Nicaragua, however, would prove short lived. Within weeks of the FSLN taking control, small groups of ex-National Guard members and anti-Sandinista rebels began to form. They carefully and systematically began attacking the new regime, sparking off what would become known throughout the 1980s as the Contra War.

On 20 June 1979, exactly one month before Somoza fled to the USA, an ABC news reporter, Bill Stewart, was murdered on the streets of Managua by the National Guard. His van was stopped at a roadblock (despite it being clearly marked as a press vehicle) and, when he approached the soldiers to ask for an interview, was ordered on to the ground. He was kicked once in the ribs, then shot in the head, and died instantly. The incident was caught on film by his cameraman, Jack Clark. The footage was smuggled out of the country and broadcast on all of the major USA networks.

Public outcry to Stewart’s murder was immense, causing President Jimmy Carter to issue the following statement in an official press release of 21 June 1979: “The murder of American newsman Bill Stewart in Nicaragua was an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn.” At the same time, all USA support to the Somoza regime was immediately curtailed.

It was an image that would leave a lasting impression on British writer and director Roger Spottiswoode. He had been looking for a project that dealt with overseas journalism for several years, particularly the turbulent and uncertain world of the war correspondent. When a script by writer Clayton Frohman landed on his desk, Spottiswoode saw the perfect opportunity. The first draft told a very different story to the one that would make its way to the screen some four years later.

This was Frohman’s first attempt at scriptwriting, and “The Delinquents” (1989) and “Defiance” (2008) would follow. Although the script contained much that Spottiswoode found intriguing (including the murder of a journalist at the hands of a military junta that echoed the real life shooting of Bill Stewart), the script failed to impress the director. Spottiswoode turned to fellow director and screenwriter Ron Shelton, and together they developed a new story, shifting the focus from the conflict in the Far East to the turbulent political arena of South America.

With a budget of just over $8.5 million “Under Fire” opened in USA cinemas on 21 October 1983 to mixed reviews, with an opening weekend of $1.8 million. Some critics were a little confused by what they saw as the film’s naïve political stance on the troubling situation developing on their own doorstep. In his article Issues Raised by ‘Under Fire’ for The New York Times, 30 October 1983, Richard Bernstein pondered whether the messages the film attempted to raise were handled as appropriately as might be needed for such a sensitive and volatile subject matter.

He argued that the film “seems to make some implicit political judgments that are likely to stir debate. The film portrays the Somoza government and all that have anything to do with it as villainous or, at best, stupid; the Sandinista revolutionaries are, by contrast, charismatic, courageous and committed. This, after all, is the same group – except for a few notable defectors – who in their four years of power have aligned themselves with Cuba, the Soviet Union, suppressed free trade unions, curbed their country’s best newspapers, indefinitely postponed earlier promised elections, and forced thousands of Miskito Indians to flee to Honduras.”

However, Bernstein was by no means speaking for the majority. Film critic Roger Ebert awarded the film three and a half stars out of four, stating that the film “exists in that half-world between exhaustion and exhilaration, between love and cynicism, between covering the war and getting yourself killed.”

“Under Fire” has since undergone a major critical re-evaluation, with many concluding it to be one of the best political dramas of the 1980s, some seeing it as a companion piece to Oliver Stone’s “Salvador” (1986).



  • 1080p presentation on Blu-ray
  • Uncompressed LPCM 2.0 audio
  • Optional English SDH subtitles
  • Audio Commentary with director Roger Spottiswoode, assistant editor Paul Seydor, photo-journalist Matthew Naythons, and film historian Nick Redman
  • Audio Commentary with music mixer-producer Bruce Botnick, music editor Kenny Hal and film historians Jeff Bond, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman
  • “Joanna Cassidy Remembers Under Fire” (a very thin 3 minutes)
  • Original Theatrical Trailer

Overall, the leads of Nolte and Cassidy come across as believable, although it never feels clear as to what truly motivates them to do what they do. You get the idea that they feel that their reporting is the right thing to do, but never address the elephant in the room that their lives could be so much better if they didn’t have to shoulder their own idealisms. Gene Hackman’s role is a little thin, hinging on being dragged into the action by this pair of devil-may-care colleagues, more out of loyalty to them than any specific desire.

The pace of the film is deceptive. A lot happens even though there’s a feeling that the narrative is taking its time mapping itself out. Aside from the three main characters, there is little development of anyone else, leaving you at the end of the film still wondering how this particular civil war gained so much traction with the people themselves. There is one scene featuring a trio of teenage ‘rebels’ which is disturbing as they aren’t actually able to articulate what they are doing and why. Their answer is cold-blooded-murder, but it still leaves you wondering what the question was.

The bottom line is that history is best documented as events are taking place, and without journalists providing the insight and pictures to back up their findings, we are often just left with that country’s official government line, a narrative that cannot be trusted, as every side puts their own perspective on happenings.

The story is timeless, even if leaps in technology mean the news can be more instantaneous than ever before, whatever far-flung corner of the world it might be coming from. We are long past rolls of film being part of a photo-journalist’s kit, and the internet itself makes getting the full story and pictures out to news agencies easier than ever. The film does address whether you can actually believe what you see, especially when Nolte’s character is coerced into staging images that present what his captors see as a necessary lie.

“Under Fire” is not an easy view, but its narrative does swirl around in your head for a long time afterwards. It was made with the expectation of a disappointing box office return, but was backed as it was seen to be a story worth telling. They had a point, and is well worth your investment of time in getting hold of it.

“Under Fire” Blu-ray edition is out now from Eureka Classics. It has a ‘15’ certificate, a running time of 128 mins approx, and a RRP of £16.99, or get it for less at www.culttvstore.com


Last modified on Monday, 17 June 2019 09:56

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