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.

Full Metal Jacket (1987) One of the Most Important But Ambiguous Vietnam Movies

In the hand of another filmmaker than Stanley Kubrick this wouldn’t have become the breathtakingly awesome movie this is. Full Metal Jacket is a visceral experience if there ever was one, a movie whose images will burn themselves into your memory forever. Not an unworthy beginning to a new year of blogging. But also a very controversial one.

As probably most of you know, Full Metal Jacket is like two movies in one. The first part, is the boot camp part, the second the combat part.

During the boot camp part the new recruits are transformed into killers, men who belong to a brotherhood. The drill instructor Gunnery Sgt Hartmann (R. Lee Ermey) is by far one of the most obnoxious war movie characters. But what a performance. Try saying one of the numerous bits he utters without stammering. This part also introduces us to Private Joker (Matthew Modine), an aspiring, cynical journalist. Private Joker symbolizes the controversies around this war. We will see him later, in combat, wearing a peace button and simultaneously a “Born to Kill” slogan on his helmet. Another of this movies memorable characters has his major part in this sequence, Gomer Pyle (Vincent d’Onofrio), a fat and clumsy recruit who winds everybody up because they are punished for his failures that are endless. His final scenes bear all the traces of other Kubrick movies like A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.

Once in the combat zone in Vietnam, we meet other colorful characters, one of them Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), a pure killing machine. At the beginning of his stay Joker is bored like hell. He is a journalist with Stars and Stripes. The guys basically hang around and wait for something to happen and instructions on what they have to report. The Vietnamese they see are either hookers or Vietcong. Any others don’t seem to pass their radar.

The last part is an intense combat part in the cit of Hue. They come under fire and some of them are killed by a sniper hiding in one of the bombed out buildings. As there may still be many people who have never seen Full Metal Jacket I will stop here. It should suffice to say that the last part is intense and not easy to watch.

What struck me most in this movie are the pictures and the colours. Smoke and fire, burning red heaven, bombed out buildings  and palm trees. Apparently the parts in the buildings were filmed in the docklands of London. I don’t know about the rest of the movie. The music is interesting as well. There is a mix between songs of the era and original score that would do any horror movie justice.

I have left out many important, visually powerful and interesting moments. I just wanted to give a short introduction to one of the most extreme and most important war movies that has ever been made. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should watch it.

Full Metal Jacket is also one of those movies that is focussing on the themes War and Journalism and Women in War Movies. Believe me, if you haven’t seen it, we got some interesting elements on both in this movie. If you have seen it, you know what I mean.

I don’t think it is the best Vietnam movie. At least not for me. Of the combat Vietnam movies I consider Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and maybe even We Were Soldiers to be superior. Why? I think, it is fantastic from a cinematographic point of view, but as an anti-war statement I always found it a tad ambiguous. Pretty much like Apocalypse Now.

What do you think?

Escape from Huang Shi aka The Children of Huang Shi (2008)

Believe it or not but Escape from Huang Shi is an Australian, Chinese, German co-production telling the true story of a British journalist. What a combination. This gives the movie a very authentic feel, especially due to the fact that we hear as much Chinese as English (and some Japanese).

If anyone has liked the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as much as I did (I think it is one of the best movies ever. One could almost call it a martial-arts fairytale), he or she will be pleased to see Michelle Yeoh and  Yun-Fat Chow in the same movie (however no joint scenes).

But this is not the only pleasant surprise of this quite enjoyable movie.

The story is similar to Welcome to Sarajevo, only this journalist here, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers (who is really good in this), is doing something even more courageous. He stays in the country to help the orphans.

It is absolutely incredible what some people are capable of doing even when facing adversity at its worst. This is a story of someone who was capable of overcoming his own fear, of reinventing a life for himself and a group of orphan boys and creating a home for them.

George Hogg, a young British journalist, arrives in China in 1937 finding the country being invaded by the Japanese. Air raids, floods of refugees on the streets, he´s afraid and thrilled at the same time hoping for the story of his life. He gets it only not the way he had hoped for. He soon sees himself in great danger and is led by an Australian nurse to Huang Shi. She leaves him there to struggle with famine, the depressions and aggressions of some 60 orphaned boys who have seen the worst and the insecurity of a life on the border of a war.

In wonderful pictures we see him overcome the urge to escape and help those children transform the barren land around them into a fertile garden. He is assisted in this  by a mysterious tradeswoman Madam Wang (Michelle Yeoh) who sells more than just seeds, by Chen (Yun-Fat Chow) the leader of a communist partisan group and of course the Australian nurse (Radha Mitchell) he is secretly in love with.

When the Japanese and the air raids start to approach Huang Shi, Hogg must make a decision. He wants to flee and take the children on a journey over 500 perilous miles across the snow-bound Liu Pan Shan mountains to safety on the edge of the Mongolian desert. This seems almost impossible to achieve.

The movie reminded me a little bit of  The Painted Veil (no, it is not a war movie). Same beautifully filmed landscapes. And those sumptuous  and, for us exotic, Chinese interiors of the time. The story is already quite captivating but the beauty of those landscapes alone would have been enough to enchant us.

Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) or What would I have done?

I´m not normally sitting there watching a movie and asking myself constantly: What would I have done but I did while watching this film. Michael Winterbottom´s movie Welcome to Sarajevo is one of the very highly acclaimed war movies. It is based on a true story, Michael Henderson´s account of his stay as a war reporter in Sarajevo. Sure, war and journalism is a theme that is likely to be explored and Winterbottom is of course not the only filmmaker to have done so (The Killing Fields, We Were Soldiers, Full Metal Jacket, Generation Kill, Das Boot to name but a few,  deal with it to some extent). His second theme, war and children, has also been the center of many movies (Hope and Glory, Empire of the SunLa vita è bella aka Life is beautiful ). His major theme however is involvement. How much should we get involved? And in this specific context: Can a reporter only watch and stay outside?

Still somehow I didn´t like this much praised work and was glad when reading a comment on imbd from a person who lived through the siege of Sarajevo that he did not really like it since he found the setting unrealistic or rather the filmmakers had taken too many liberties with the setting. Funny enough that is exactly what I sensed and it spoiled a lot for me.

Winterbottom filmed shortly after the war, on site. We see a lot of destroyed buildings.  So much destruction is utterly depressing. Journalists live in abandoned hotels, meet in the evening in bars and discuss the days events and filming. Some pictures are really awful and the journalists  voyeuristic approaching of wounded, dead and dying people is shown in all its tastelessness. Intrusion without involvement.

The British reporter Michael Henderson (Stephane Dillane convincingly disenchanted and thoughtful) and the American Flynn (Woody Harrelson a bit of a sicko role as usual) were two of those vulture like creatures running to every scene whenever they heard a gunshot, firing, a bomb or screams. While Flynn appreciates the adventure quality of it all, Michael gets more and more weary. When they discover an orphanage that is located in one of the most dangerous zones of the city and he realises, even when he films the most realistic documentaries, the world just doesn´t give a damn, he´s had it. All through the movie we see original footage of the world´s then presidents. What they say combined with what we see would make great material for war satire.

Seeing those children, little babies, abandoned toddlers and older children Michael knows he can´t stay out of all of this. He wants to help and he does help. The journey he undertakes together with an American aid worker (Marisa Tomei – she´s such an endearing actress too bad her role is much too short) is the best part of the movie. Together with a few children and especially one girl whom Michael has promised a better life in England the escape the besieged city and try to get to Italy or England respectively. It´s an extremely dangerous and hazardous journey and you wish the whole time that they will make it. People like Michael truly make a difference.

Oh, by the way, what would you have done?