• Under Fire

    Released by: Twilight Time
    Released on: October 14, 2014
    Directed by: Roger Spottiswoode
    Cast: Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Joanne Cassidy, Ed Harris, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Richard Masur
    Year: 1983
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    In 1978, after years of dictatorial rule, the Nicaraguan people rebelled against their president, Anastasio Somoza DeBayle. Somoza’s regime had had the support of President Carter’s administration in the United States, before negative reports by international journalists created pressure to defund it. Among these reports was filmed footage of the murder of an ABC News journalist, which played repeatedly on American television screens.

    Under Fire uses the Nicaraguan Revolution as the backdrop for a tale of love in the trenches. It begins in Chad, where photojournalist Russell Price meets mercenary Oates, who reveals that there’s yet another war brewing overseas in Nicaragua, one that might prove more lucrative for those reporting on it than anything happening in Chad. Shortly thereafter, Price meets reporter Alex Grazier and his girlfriend Claire, both of whom are also journalists, at a party. The story then moves to the bloody streets of Nicaragua where, with Alex nowhere near, Price and Claire develop feelings for each other.

    Under Fire is an interesting experiment, a fictional romance set against a war-torn backdrop. While such films had been attempted many times before (check out any adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms), rarely had they sought to achieve such a visceral tone, where bloodshed is given more screen time than are intimate embraces. Eschewing the usual romantic platitudes and sweeping gestures for a honed, violent approach, director Roger Spottiswoode achieves the seemingly unachievable: he gets his audience to root for a morally ambiguous duo whose affair blossoms behind the back of one’s partner as the people around them, innocent and guilty alike, are murdered by the government or by armed rebels attempting to take that government down. The love affair takes a narrative backseat to the political strife, making it all the more unlikely that the leads’ relationship becomes as engrossing as it does. Never does the director (or the screenwriters, for that matter) let you forget just where you are or just how dangerous being there is.

    None of this could have been pulled off by actors of lesser talent than those cast. As it is, however, there isn’t a bad performance to be seen. Everyone plays his or her role with utter conviction. No one steals scenes from anyone else; no one overacts or under-acts. Nick Nolte is spot-on as Russell Price, a photographer as interested in making money as he is in revealing the horrors of a dangerous regime, while Joanna Cassidy gives Claire a somewhat masculine, hard-working woman-next-door appeal. Hackman, taking a break between appearances as Lex Luthor, is captivating in his portrayal of Alex. Ed Harris also gives an important and well-executed performance as Oates, and there are numerous smaller roles that are no less accomplished.


    Under Fire comes to Blu-ray in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, with an MPEG-4 AVC codec. The 50GB disc—a necessity, given the film’s running time as well as the number of extras Twilight Time has loaded onto the disc—features 1080p resolution. The transfer is inconsistent, with some scenes containing a great deal of detail while others are too soft. The overwhelming majority of the film takes place outdoors and in broad daylight, so there was certainly plenty of opportunity to show off a top-notch transfer. There’s a nice patina of grain on display accentuating the realistic look of Spottiswoode’s direction, which downplays color in favor of the earthy tones typically associated with war.

    The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is resplendent, and the sounds of gunfire, airplanes, and tanks have just the kind of pop necessary to establish the film’s real-world setting. Jerry Goldsmith’s alternately harrowing and soaring score is isolated on its own track, also in DTS-HD MA 2.0. Unfortunately, the track includes the film’s sound effects, which prevents the score from being appreciated sans the film’s action in the way a record, compact disc, or online digital recording might allow. Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are also included.

    Twilight Time has gone out of its way to provide a plethora of extras, which include two audio commentaries. The first features the director, assistant editor Paul Seydor, photojournalist Matthew Naythons, and film historian Nick Redman, while the second features music mixer and producer Bruce Botnick, music editor Kenny Hall, and film historians Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman, and Jeff Bond. The first track is the most interesting, thanks to the insights of director Spottiswoode—who starts things off by revealing how the crew procured the elephants used in the opening scenes—and Naythons, who was a photographer reporting on the war first-hand in Nicaragua. (That the crew was able to shoot the opening scenes in Mexico yet so successfully convey Africa is a testament to their skill.) Spottiswoode dominates the group with interesting and informative anecdotes, so much so that he probably should have been given his own commentary track. The second commentary track starts out with Kirgo providing historical background about Nicaragua during the time of Somoza. This segues into a discussion about Goldsmith’s score and the sound effects, which remains the primary point of discussion until the end of the film. This second commentary is for diehard fans of the film and/or Goldsmith only.

    Joanna Cassidy Remembers “Under Fire” is a short featurette that clocks in at a mere 3 minutes. Cassidy reminisces about how she got the part of the female lead in the film and about her relationship with Nolte on set. Unfortunately, the featurette is too short to reveal much about the production, though it’s great seeing Cassidy today. Excerpts from the Matthew Naythons Photo Archive contains over thirty images, not only from behind the scenes of the film itself but also of magazine covers exploring the war in Nicaragua. There’s also an original theatrical trailer for the film (2.57) and a trailer marking MGM’s 90th anniversary (2.09), which must have been included for contractual reasons. Twilight Time also sensibly includes an onscreen catalogue of their releases thus far, revealing which ones—at the time of the BD’s pressing—are still available and which ones are sold out.

    The release comes with a booklet containing liner notes by Kirgo. The film is divided into 12 chapters (don’t be fooled by the 13th chapter; it merely takes the viewer past the credits and to the menu screen). Given the film’s length of 128 minutes, the disc could have used a few more chapters for easier access to individual scenes, but this is a minor complaint given Twilight Time’s superb treatment of the film.

    The Final Word:

    It’s easy to see why Under Fire was met with such positive critical reaction upon its initial release and why it holds such a great reputation today. It’s a smart, well-paced, visceral, romantic ride, and the performances are uniformly excellent. Despite an inconsistent transfer that wavers between super-sharp and somewhat soft, Twilight Time’s BD release does well by the film. The commentaries and extras are entertaining and insightful.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!