Three journalists in a romantic triangle are involved in political intrigue during the last days of the corrupt Somozoa regime in Nicaragua before it falls to a popular revolution in 1979.
‘Under Fire’ originally premiered in a year when Ewoks, Eddie Murphy, and nubile dancers in torn sweat shirts ruled the box office. Although the movie was a critical success, audiences weren’t as supportive when it came to box office popularity. After an indifferent DVD release over a decade ago, 'Under Fire' has been re-ignited (sorry) by this exceptional Blu-ray release from Twilight Time, a company which breathes new life into under-appreciated older movies It’s one of those acclaimed films which I’ve always wanted to see, but never took the time to do so. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode (whose subsequent credits range from “And The Band Played On’ to ‘Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot’), this fictional political drama stars Nick Nolte as photojournalist Russell Price, Gene Hackman as TV reporter Alex Grazier, and Joanna Cassidy as Claire, a radio reporter. Ed Harris also appears as Oates, an ambiguously defined American government agent, and Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the enigmatic Marcel Jazy, a spy whose character becomes more clearly defined as the movie progresses. The action takes place in war-torn Nicaragua, where the Presidential dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza is at war with the Sandinista National Liberation Front. All three main characters find themselves in conflict with their responsibilities as objective journalists, and their moral duty to assist a cause developed from Marxism.
‘Under Fire’ was inspired by true events which led to the death of a network journalist (and his translator) back in 1979. The murder was caught on tape by a cameraman and televised nationally with considerable political aftermath leading to the fall of Somoza’s regime. This movie dramatizes those episodic moments effectively by showing battles between the rebellion and the military, while avoiding the cheap sensationalism of Rambo-derived gunfire and bloodshed. Also, a love “triangle” shared by Russell, Alex and Claire brings viewers closer to the main characters without the soap operatic melodrama. Joanna Cassidy has always been an underrated actress (despite her terrific work in the cult classic TV series ‘Buffalo Bill’ and her memorable appearance in ‘Blade Runner’) and if anything, ‘Under Fire’ gives fans another rare opportunity to appreciate her talents. Gene Hackman and Nick Nolte are predictably good in their roles, but special credit should be given to Ed Harris who makes a puzzling character work well in the context of the story.
On the other hand, ‘Under Fire’ lacks a creative style which might make the story more involving. We are given mysterious characters, including Ed Harris as a secret operative and a rebel figurehead known as Rafael, involved in a political conflict endangering thousands of lives, and yet the film meanders on occasion, like some moderately budgeted 1980’s TV movie-of-the-week. The dialogue lacks any particular wit or flair, even when important points are being made (“Perhaps now Americans will be outraged at what is happening here” an anonymous nurse obtusely proclaims towards the end of the movie). There are moments which could have been shortened by a minute or two (particularly when our hero and heroine first encounter the guerrillas), and others in which a bit more development was needed (a scene in which Price is harassed by police initially confused me as to location and time). The drama really picks up following a key moment where Price’s character is hunted down, yet that doesn’t occur until the last quarter of the film. Moreover, a great deal of ‘Under Fire’ is filmed at flat angles, even during the more important action scenes, making it hard to feel too much in the way of excitement or tension.
Given all the recent major historical events of the last thirty years (take your pick) and the fact that global information is transmitted faster and with more immediate visuals than ever before, the political events spotlighted in this movie may seem less significant to the twenty-somethings of today. However, as good as ‘Under Fire’ is, the movie pales in comparison to other films of a similar nature like ‘The Killing Fields’ or ‘Missing.’ I really wanted to be enthralled by this film, but ended up being merely entertained.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Presented as a single platter BD-50 disc in a standard Blu-ray case, ‘Under Fire’ is a special, limited edition release from Twilight Time, a studio known for releasing titles which deserve attention but may not be of commercial priority for most studios. The original one-sheet poster is reproduced on the cover, as well as imprinted on the disc itself. A detailed booklet is included as an insert, but there is no accompanying DVD or other digital version available.
Though somewhat pricey and sold only online, Twilight Time's products have special appeal to collectors and are usually produced with care and appreciation, as clearly evidenced here. (I will always be grateful to have a high definition pressing of ‘Body Double’ and ‘Fright Night’ on my media bookshelf.)
‘Under Fire’ is presented in its original theatrical widescreen ratio of 1.85:1 in 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoded high definition. Though the picture lacks the visual “pop” of most modern pictures captured digitally, this movie looks darn good and consistent in high definition. There is enough fine detail to make one appreciate the digital transfer, such as smudges on car windows, wisps of smoke coming from rifles, and tears overflowing from Joanna Cassidy’s eyes. The picture retains its original grain structure, which leads to a more “filmic” experience. Colors are solid, but less than vibrant, even during the movie’s bloodiest moments where reds seem deliberately muted. Dark scenes retain good black levels, and the picture really impresses during close-ups. After viewing the theatrical trailer included in the Blu-ray, I was reminded by how clean the movie looked from beginning to end.
The original soundtrack is presented sin tereo encoded in DTS-Master Audio. Dynamics are noticeably lacking throughout the movie, and deep bass response is nearly absent, which is too bad considering how often gunshots, rolling tanks and speeding cars occupy the soundtrack. Voices and dialogue are clear and intelligible, and heard monophonically through both channels. On the other hand, the stereo separation is wide and distinct when it comes to the music and sound effects. If you simply can’t stand the thought of listening to a movie with only two front speakers, now would be a good time to make use of that long-forgotten Dolby Pro-Logic II option on your receiver.
The commentaries occupying the other audio tracks are well-recorded and dominate the soundtrack with very few moments of silence. Even though the filmmakers are recalling events from over thirty years ago, the notations and anecdotes are surprisingly detailed and engaging.
The isolated score sounds great as a separate track, though sound effects can still be heard with muted dialogue. There’s no doubt that the best way to enjoy Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score is by purchasing the original soundtrack on CD, but this presentation serves as a great introduction.
Isolated Score Track - Twilight Time is associated with Screen Archives Entertainment and Film Score Monthly, so it’s no surprise that special attention was given to Jerry Goldsmith’s striking score, which can be hear on an isolated track. The late maestro is predominantly known for his memorable music from ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture,’ ‘The Omen,” and ‘Patton,’ so it’s a tribute to his legacy that his less celebrated yet finer works be given the spotlight.
Audio Commentary - 'Under Fire" provides two separate tracks: the first with Director Roger Spottiswoode, Assistant Editor Paul Seydor, and Photo Journalist Matthew Naythons along with Film Historian Nick Redman (co-founder of Twilight Time); and the second track is covered by Music Mixer-Porducer Bruce Biotnick, Music Editor Kenny Hall, and Film Historians Jeff Bond, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. Film students will appreciate hearing the technical discussions of this production, as opposed to some celebrity going on and on about how great it was to work with another fellow celebrity. As a Jerry Goldsmith fan myself, I paid special attention to the multiple comments made about the soundtrack, which are thoughtful and incisive without devolving into simple, sycophantic praise.
Joanna Cassidy Remembers ‘Under Fire’ (3:05 HD) - The Blu-ray also offers is a present-day (for 2014, that is) interview with co-star Joanna Cassidy, accompanied by clips of her performance.
The remaining extras include a theatrical trailer (2:57 SD) presented in standard definition, a high definition photo gallery of the production captured by famed photographer Matthew Naythons, who also comments on the film, and promotional stills promoting Twilight Time’s catalog of releases, as well as a studio trailer promoting MGM’s 90th Anniversary (2:05 HD)
An eight page insert attached to the standard Blu-ray case features an entertaining and insightful essay by Julie Kirgo which is illustrated by still photos from the film. It’s this kind of attention to detail which to me justify the retail price of Twilight Time’s products and affirm my enthusiasm for their work.
‘Under Fire’ is one of those movies in which there is much to recommend, but not as much to love, Jerry Goldsmith's score aside. It certainly deserved a bigger audience at the time of its release, and I’m glad for the opportunity to have reviewed this film after thirty years. I just wish I could have shared the same excitement for this movie as the Blu-ray commentators did. Still, based on the film and the quality of the Blu-ray's technical presentation, this release earns a light recommendation.