It’s perhaps interesting to watch Under Fire in the week that British charity Comic Relief has announced its plan to cut back on celebrity appeals in the wake of what has become known as the ‘white saviour’ row, promising (rightfully in my view) to “give voices to people” who actually live and experience at first-hand the hardships of the third world instead. 2017 saw Ed Sheeran’s Comic Relief video appeal from Liberia handed a ‘Rusty Radiator’ award the “most offensive and stereotypical fundraising video of the year”, whilst last year Stacey Dooley’s Instagram post featuring her cradling a Ugandan infant was criticised by Labour MP David Lammy as propagating “tired, harmful stereotypes”.
I mention this because the same kind of criticism could indeed be levelled at Hollywood’s long and disheartening practice of attempting to depict a very real story of conflict or struggle outside of America through the eyes of a white American character. It’s as if they believe audiences cannot understand what is going on unless a white American A-lister is at any such film’s centre, and it’s not always confined to stories about the world outside of the US either; consider any number of films about the Afro-American experience that are inevitably told mainly from the perspective of the white community; The Help, Driving Miss Daisy, Green Book et-tedious-cetera.
Whilst it is fair to say that the Nicaragua-set Under Fire is yet another American movie that attempted to raise awareness or document the issues of a foreign country via Caucasian movie stars, it must get a free pass for the simple truth that it approached the story in a way that could only be told from the American perspective, because it is that perspective that finally brought about a change for the country.
It was described by then President Jimmy Carter as “an act of barbarism that all civilised people condemn”. In truth, it was the pivotal moment that led to the termination of his administration’s support for Nicaragua’s dictatorial Somoza regime. It was the sound of gunfire that reverberated across the world. It was the murder of American journalist Bill Stewart.
Stewart was a thirty-seven-year-old experienced foreign correspondent working for ABC News in 1979. Arriving in Nicaragua in June of that year, his assignment was to cover the civil war between the dynastic Somaza government and the leftist Sandinista rebels. On June 20th, his tenth day in the war-ravaged country, Stewart and his crew arrived at a Guardia-manned roadblock in the eastern slums of the capital, Managua. Approaching the barricade, Stewart and his interpreter, Juan Francisco Espinoza, were immediately separated by the Somoza-loyal soldiers, despite presenting them with their official press credentials. Inside the press van and unnoticed by the Guardia, cameraman Jack Clark began filming as Stewart was forced to lie down in the road. Captured on film, Stewart was first kicked in the ribs and then fatally shot behind his right ear. The twenty-six-year-old Espinoza was slain in a similar manner, off camera. The driver of the press van, Pablo Tiffer López, would later testify that a soldier said of Stewart “I’m sure he’s no journalist. He is a dog”. The previous day, the government sponsored newspaper Novedadas had ran an editorial dismissing foreign journalists as “part of a vast network of Communist propaganda”. López also testified that, on realising their ‘mistake’, the soldiers demanded that the surviving journalists who had witnessed the death of their colleague report his murder as the actions of a Sandinista sniper.
Clark immediately smuggled his film out of the country, back home to the US, where the three major networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – broadcast the damning footage of Stewart’s cold-blooded murder several times over the proceeding days. In the midst of the shock and outraged reaction from American households, Carter severed all ties with Somoza, and the regime was ultimately overthrown on July 19th – less than one month after the murder of Stewart and Espinoza. In the chaos that followed the collapse of the Somoza regime, the fates of the Guardia soldiers responsible remain unknown to this day.
Four years later, the events of June 20th 1979 loosely formed the basis of Roger Spottiswoode’s political thriller Under Fire, released for the first time ever in the UK on Blu-ray this week. The film stars Nick Nolte as a photojournalist who gets caught up not only in the Nicaraguan revolution but also caught between his love for Joanna Cassidy’s reporter and his friendship with her Time journalist husband, played by Gene Hackman. The film was Oscar nominated for its score from Jerry Goldsmith, featuring jazz guitarist Pat Metheny – a score that was later featured in Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film, Django Unchained.
This is a gripping and emotional story that feels refreshingly authentic. We immediately meet our trio of reporters at the closing days of an assignment in Chad. Nolte’s Russell Price is shown to be a seasoned war photographer and the epitome of a neutral party; as much at ease with the rebel forces as he is with Ed Harris’ government hired mercenary, Oates. At the hotel, the marriage of radio journalist Claire (Cassidy) and Alex (Hackman) reaches a breaking point. He’s tired of reporting from the front line and reveals that he has been offered a plush – and more importantly, safe – job as a TV anchorman back home in New York. He dreams of the quiet life on Long Island, but Claire still has the restless bug and takes an assignment in the next hot spot, Nicaragua, with Russell. Once in Central America, it’s clear that Russell’s reason for tagging along perhaps had more to do with Claire than it did to do with the civil war itself.
Sent behind lines with the David-like guerrilla forces who battle the Goliath of a corrupt, U.S.-backed dictatorship, Russell and Claire begin to develop sympathy for the rebel cause that coincides with the feelings they inevitably begin to develop for one another. Their neutrality lost, Russell commits to the great journalistic sin of faking a photograph to aid the guerrillas in their struggle – depicting the recently slain Sandinista leader Rafael as alive. And then Hackman’s Alex returns and is surprisingly placid about the development between his wife and best bud. He’s clearly hurt, but doesn’t want to affect the friendship he has with both of them. The real reason he’s in Nicaragua is to get one last interview with Rafael to impress further his prospective employers, and he believes that Russell is the only man on the ground who can help him with his assignment…
Roger Ebert was a big fan of Under Fire, praising its ability to transcend the phoniness that is often rife in this sub-genre of films to deliver something much more convincing instead. Praising the committed performances, he said “Nolte is great to watch as the seedy photographer with the beer gut. Hackman never really convinced me that he could be an anchorman, but he did a better thing. He convinced me that he thought he could be one. Joanna Cassidy takes a role that could have been dismissed as “the girl” and fills it out as a fascinating, textured adult” and I completely agree, especially regarding Cassidy who develops a strong independence that wasn’t always so available in female roles from this time. It’s just a shame then that this degree of authenticity never comes off in depicting Nolte’s move from passive observer to actively taking sides. There’s nothing much in Clayton Frohman and Ron Shelton’s screenplay that gets to the nub of this change of heart, beyond Nolte and Cassidy post-coitally reflecting that something is happening to them. Despite this niggle, I still think Nolte delivers one of his best performances here, but if the film invested just a little more in terms of why this war out of the dozens the characters have covered previously really matters to them, then this would be a minor classic. As it stands, Under Fire is perhaps one of the better internationally politically-aware Hollywood movies from this era (for my money it beats Costa-Gavras’ Chile-set Missing from the previous year for example) which, at heart, I suspect wanted to emulate something of the classic studio pictures of the 1940s with its love-triangle subplot.