Under Fire (1983) War and Journalism or Whose Side Are You On?

I don’t take sides, I take pictures (Nick Nolte as Russel Price in Under Fire)

The least you can say about Under Fire is that is an extremely interesting movie with four fascinating character portraits played by four outstanding actors.

Under Fire belongs to the war movie subgenre of War and Journalism. There are quite a lot of movies in this sub-genre and a great many are from the 80s. The Year of Living Dangerously, Circle of Deceit, The Killing Fields, Salvador, Missing and later movies like Welcome to Sarajevo (see my post).

The movie opens in Tchad. The photographer Russel Price (Nick Nolte) and the mercenary Oates (Ed Harris) meet and discuss their work. Oates points out that Price isn’t much better. He is profiting as much from every war there is as Oates is. None of them is more interested in politics than the other. When they part we know that they will meet again.

Before Price departs to the latest war zone, Nicaragua, we are introduced to two other journalists, Claire (Joanna Cassidy) and Alex Gazier (Gene Hackman). Claire and Alex are a couple but she breaks up with him before leaving to Nicaragua and we already sense she will be romantically involved with Russell.

At first when arriving in Nicaragua, Price isn’t interested in background information. He wants to know if the beer is good and what the food is like. Fortunately the movie nevertheless fills us in on the basics. We hear that the revolutionaries, headed by a guy named Rafael, fight the government of president Somoza who is supported by the US and a few other details. Claire and Price meet the French agent Jazy (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a dubious character, that seems to be in favour of the rebels, they also meet the president and his press officer.

While they are in Nicaragua – falling in love, getting to know the country – something happens to Price. He meets Oates again and sees him kill one of the revolutionaries in cold blood. This makes Price understand his own actions and how cynical they are.  He becomes aware that he cannot stay out of this anymore. It bdawns on him, that the Sandinistas are right, that the government is corrupt and supported by the US who are afraid of a communist Nicaragua. In order to support the revolution, he takes a fake picture. He serves the rebels but triggers a flood of violence during which Alex is killed by the president’s soldiers (this is based on a true story). He takes a picture of this as well and triggers a reaction in the US…

What I really liked about this movie is how subtle it portrays the different people. Nolte, Hackman and Harris are very convincing, each takes another position, stays for another point of view. The cynic mercenary Oates is probably the most stringent character, the one who will make you the most uneasy, although Jazy isn’t a bad example of double standards either. Claire was the least convincing character, she rather served as a enhancer for the others.

Apparently the movie has been considered to be problematic in the US because it openly takes position for the Nicaraguan revolution. I think this is great and daring. It is an ugly chapter in US politics and many efforts have been made to forget about it as soon as possible (Noam Chomsky has written quite eloquently about this).

The movie is visually extremely convincing. John Alcott, Kubrick’s cameraman, has filmed it documentary-style.

The topic of War and Journalism always makes me uneasy. I think we should be informed but I cannot understand how people can take pictures like vultures of dying and dead people and stay uninvolved. Maybe it is not so much journalism as photo journalism that I find problematic. I am really glad for movies like Under Fire. They are valuable and important and illustrate how everything is linked, how one deed leads to another.

There is a trailer on iMDB.

Here is just a video with scenes from the movie and the original soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith.

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2 thoughts on “Under Fire (1983) War and Journalism or Whose Side Are You On?

  1. warmoviebuff says:

    Interesting review. It has been a long time since I saw it and need to view it again. Reminds me a little of “No Man’s Land” with it’s take on war journalism. What do you think?

    • I think as soon as the press is idepicted in a movie, the statements are pretty much the same, almost stereotypical. The journalists are always criticized, shown like vultures etc. I think it’s pretty lame in No Man’s Land compared to this one or Welcome, Sarajevo in which the film makers decided to show that they could make a difference… Journalism isn’t the main theme in No Man’s Land, although it is important. Watch it and tell me what you think.

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