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

Swiftly directed by Roger Spottiswoode, Under Fire is one of the more interesting Hollywood movies to deal with the Nicaragua political crisis, and the role of American journalists in this conflict.

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Under Fire (1983 film) poster.jpg

Original film poster

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.

The ideas about objectivity in reportage and the press’s moral responsibility are thrown into a life-or-death dilemma.  The film suggests that violation of 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.

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.

Though the film is fictional, it was inspired by the June 20, 1979 murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart and his translator Juan Espinoza by Nicaraguan National Guard troops. ABC cameraman Jack Clark caught the entire episode on tape.

When the footage was shown on TV, it became a major international incident, undermining support got dictator Anastasio Somoza. The incident was the final straw for the Carter Administration’s relationship with Somoza, whose regime fell on July 19.

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. Most Americans were not aware of the Nicaraguan civil war, and those who did know, didn’t care to see a movie about it.

However, its release on Video was successful, increasing the number of viewers who appreciated the film.


Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Produced by Jonathan Taplin
Screenplay by Clayton Frohman and Ron Shelton,  based on story by Clayton Frohman
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography John Alcott
Edited by Mark Conte and John Bloom

Distributed by Orion Pictures

Release date: October 21, 1983

Running time: 128 minutes
Budget $9.5 million
Box office $5.7 million