by Marjorie Woodford Bray
Cut, no. 29, February 1984, p. 11
UNDER FIRE is a Hollywood film which dramatizes how newspeople become supporters of the Sandinista Revolution. It has drawn as viewers many who have become disheartened with how the mass media consistently misrepresent the Nicaraguan revolution. In the movie theater, we are dazzled by UNDER FIRE's scenes with high production values which depict the totality of the revolutionary war, its combatants' bravery, and the contrast between the people's poverty and the Somoza dynasty's sybaritic luxury. We are also moved by the situation's emotion: as the two main characters fall in love with each other, they also fall in love with the revolution.
Nevertheless, upon sober reflection we must ask serious questions about this production. The film's message is, "The first casualty of war is the truth." What, then, is the film trying to tell us about the Nicaraguan Revolution? A fictional film mixed with documentary should create a plot consistent with the spirit of the events which actually occurred. In UNDER FIRE the key situation in the plot, the one during which the major characters decide to support the Revolution, is counterfeit. It not only goes against the spirit of the Revolution, but it also belies ascertainable facts which illustrate that spirit.
The film posits the existence of a young and glamorous revolutionary leader, Rafael. His charismatic leadership seems essential for the rebels' impending success. His face appears on banners, and his name is on the lips of all. Clearly, this inspiring person most closely parallels Carlos Fonseca Amador, but that historical figure was killed in 1976, three years before the overthrow of Somoza. Fonseca's leadership was a legacy of example and ideas, which inspired many followers to continue the revolutionary struggle without his presence. Furthermore, he was not traditionally handsome. His myopia caused him to wear thick glasses, and even that iconography is fondly remembered today by the Nicaraguan people in the lyrics of their major hymn to him. Every poster of Fonseca in Nicaragua, and there are many, show a thin man with thick-lensed glasses. He was not a hero because he was handsome, and his public iconography does not now have to be "prettified."
In the film, Rafael's death threatens the Sandinistas' victory. The remaining rebel leaders believe that if the masses know of his death, they will become so disheartened so as to lose that success which is almost within their grasp. This proposition provides an ideal dramatic situation for UNDER FIRE's hero, a photographer, who consents to take a picture of the dead leader as if he were alive. This act then symbolizes the photographer's decision to endorse the revolutionary cause. In this story about Nicaragua, where the loss of a leader threatens the entire Revolution, the plot's turning point, based upon that false situation, comes when the main character faces a choice which violates the ethics of his profession. In fact, to show a reporter falsifying the news discredits the nature of the Nicaraguan Revolution and its leaders. They did not need and would not have asked for such an act on the part of a reporter. In the film, such a plotline also discredits the hero himself.
But has not the reporter-hero already been portrayed as a person whose endorsement of the Revolution has an essentially shallow basis? He enters the scene as a cynical conveyer of dramatic images and a technician in the graphics of war. He becomes emotionally engaged by a series of events. He feels affection and admiration for a young rebel, a baseball player, who lobs a grenade into a belltower from where a surviving U.S. mercenary shoots the youth down. The reporter feels disgusts for the mercenary, for a U.S. public relations man working for Somoza, and for a French informer for the CIA. Yet none of this seems enough to convert a hard-bitten journalist into a betrayal of journalistic ethics. In fact, the film covers this plot weakness with another, simultaneous plot device, the emotional relationship between the photographer and a woman journalist which propels him to decide to take the faked photos. In the film, as the lovers turn to each other and say, "What is happening to us?" it is not clear whether they are referring to their feelings for each other or for the Sandinista cause. In the plot their romantic love is not effectively fused with their support for the revolutionaries, because the film has not made their support for the Revolution credible.
Could the film have supplied this credibility? Of course. Had the authors looked to the real Nicaraguan past for sources, they could have drawn, for example, on the story of other U.S. citizens who lived in Nicaragua at the time of the Revolution — such as the Maryknoll nuns in Leon. Having cast their lot with the Nicaraguan poor in their religious base communities, these women could not leave when the government offered to evacuate foreigners during the final weeks of intense fighting. The women would not take advantage of a safety not available to the people of Nicaragua. These nuns could have demonstrated to the screenwriters how the Revolution was a popular movement, fought by people who had learned to trust themselves, who would not have been paralyzed by a leader's death, no matter how beloved, and who would vindicate such martyrdom by more intense struggle to win.
It was the Sandinista Revolution's humanity that won allegiance from the Maryknoll nuns and other outside observers. Such human concern could be conveyed through film, yet it is absent from this work. That is a serious defect. It means that the film fails to give its characters credible motivation, and it means that the film cannot catch the spirit of history in Nicaragua in 1979.
There are other flaws in the way the film depicts Nicaraguan reality, less critical ones, but ones which could have given the viewer a more accurate picture of why the Sandinista Revolution occurred. The film presents Somoza as venal and vain, but it hides his basic depravity by making him a comic figure. The film shows his taking from the country the bodies of his father and brother but not his looting the National Treasury of all but $3,000,000. U.S. involvement seems largely a matter of individuals' desire for personal gain; the film does not show U.S. official involvement.
The critical act of espionage — stealing photographs of Sandinistas — is carried out by the Frenchman. (This event itself is unconvincing. Could the Sandinista leaders, always so careful to cover their faces with bandanas, have allowed themselves to be so casually photographed? Would a journalist in their confidence have been foolish enough to have left strategically critical photographs lying around?)
What are the implications of UNDER FIRE? It chooses to depict a nation whose existence is daily imperiled by threats orchestrated by the U.S. government. Here, in the United States, the public relations effort to legitimate our government's goal of destroying the Sandinista government rests on systematically portraying that regime as an aggressive dictatorship, seemingly bent on destroying pluralism within Nicaragua's borders. A major part of this smear campaign depends on the assertion that the Sandinistas have destroyed freedom of the press. Yet UNDER FIRE's central premise — the hero's act of heroism — comes from a fictional act of news falsification. Such a plot line reinforces this U.S. governmental allegation, at least subliminally, in viewers' minds.
Ironically, at the same time that the seriously flawed UNDER FIRE has been released theatrically, another feature-length film on Central America is being made available to the U.S. public. WHEN THE MOUNTAINS TREMBLE has been made about Guatemala by two independent U.S. newspeople, a camera person and a sound person, Tom Sigel and Pamela Yates, who work as a team documenting events in Central America. They became aware of the dimensions of the Central American struggle while filming in Nicaragua in 1979 for network news. Since then, they have sold news footage to networks while gathering their own, brilliantly filmed, radical analysis of contemporary Guatemala. Had UNDER FIRE sought to tell the story of two journalists such as these, its defects as a docudrama might have been avoided. It was Pamela Yates, the sound person, who pointed out to me the sexist and unconvincing role of UNDER FIRE's woman reporter, whose news gathering consists largely of turning on her tape recorder and whose interview with Somoza is shown to be a disaster as a journalistic encounter.
Once again a Hollywood film fails in its ostensible objective to present a revolution "truthfully." Is this a well-intentioned failure? Or is it a conscious effort to capitalize on a dramatic situation, exploiting a revolutionary ambience without much concern for reflecting accurately the dynamics of real revolution? Or were the critical misrepresentations an effort to depict the Nicaraguan Revolution as one with merely romantic appeal but without qualities which would demand our continued support? For those of us who understand how the Sandinista government is worthy of efforts of solidarity, we should look beyond such a film's surface appeal to appraise its impact critically. Indeed, it is in the making of this kind of Hollywood fiction that the first casualty is the truth.