Under Fire (1983): Political Tale of Nicaragua, Starring Nick Nolte

“Under Fire,” directed by Roger Spottiswoode, is one of the better Hollywood movies to deal with the Nicaragua political crisis and the role of Americans, especially journalists, in this conflict.

The narrative contrasts three types of Americans caught up in the events surrounding the final days of Nicaragua’s Somoza regime. Concerned with the issue of how journalists become engulfed in events that challenge their professional ethics, the narrative raises questions about detachment and objectivity. Russell Price (Nick Nolte) is a typical Bogart hero, a celebrated and daring magazine photojournalist.

A swashbuckling professional, though not too sophisticated or knowing about political affairs, Price initially claims, “I don’t take sides, I just take pictures.” “Never mind the peasant shit,” he interrupts a serious discussion about politics, “I mean the important stuff, the best hotel, the best beer, good shrimps.” Like Bogart, he is a cynical, uncommitted freewheeler, out for adventure and good time. However, in the course of the narrative, he fakes the photograph of a dead leader, a morally dubious act, in order to help the Sandinista’s cause.

The younger and more attractive Price is contrasted with Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman), a middle-aged, star reporter, who is giving up the dangers and excitement of field reportage for a comfortable and prestigious network anchorman’s seat. Alex wants to settle down, professionally and personally. Ironically, it’s Alex, the honest and conscientious journalist, who gets killed in the chaos. Their ideas about objectivity in reportage and the press’s moral responsibility are thrown into a life-or-death dilemma. The film says that violation of the professional code is right (it’s O.K. to lie), if it is for a “good” (Leftist) cause; inventing the news for the Sandinista Revolution is perceived as a worthy cause.

Indeed, Price’s tough journalist sacrifices his journalistic ethos and professional honor much too easily. Oates (Ed Harris), the third American, is ideologically rejected. A mercenary, Oates is a nightmarish version of what a journalist (or any American) might become under the worst circumstances. Amoral and murderous, he lacks any conscience and does not care what side he is fighting on so long as he gets paid for it.

Oscar Alert

Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score was nominated for an Oscar, but the winner was Bill Conti for the adventure, “The Right Stuff.”

Released in October 1983, the film was initially a box-office flop, despite good reviews. However, its release on Video was successful, increasing the number of viewers who appreciated the film.

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