by Elayne Rapping and Robert Simon
Cut, no. 30, March 1985, p. 70
I would like to suggest another political reading of UNDER FIRE, which differs from the review printed in JUMP CUT, No. 29, and indeed from most left responses to the film.
I cannot argue with any of Bray's points about the slick, adventure/ romance conventions used by the filmmakers. The focus on a white professional journalist and his love and career troubles was obviously less than, shall we say, revolutionary. As Bray says, WHEN THE MOUNTAINS TREMBLE (and the recent EL NORTE too, for that matter) are far more accurate and serious in their portrayal of Central American issues from a native (third world) point of view.
However, there are two important points that I think need to be made here: one about the size and nature of the audience who saw this film; the other about a very real political virtue that made this film unique and, I would say, progressive, in impact.
There is no question at all that this film was made for a mainstream audience and therefore reflected and spoke to a bourgeois mindset. Like Costa-Gavras' MISSING, it focused on a middle class professional as hero, not on the third world people involved. It was slick, glamorous, and highly oversimplified in its treatment of the Sandinista struggle and the guerrillas themselves. But there is a political reality here that is not addressed by making such charges in the ideological abstract. The situation in Central America today and the role of our government in it are of crisis proportions. The media, which is the source of most information and opinion on international affairs, distorts and lies about these matters. Soviet and Cuban input in particular are exaggerated and lied about, in an effort to turn the entire situation into a Cold War conflict between democracy and Communism. In such a climate, the wide audience which the film has and will continue to attract — especially through cable and pay-TV — will be seeing a view on the issues which differs significantly from what they are used to, especially in its sympathy — soppy as it is —for the rebels.
But even more important, I think that the real political issue of this film is overlooked by those on the left determined to find fault with a less than "correct" portrayal of third world life. Sure, it's absurd to think that a journalist could have such influence on a third world revolutionary struggle as Nolte has merely by falsifying a photo. And the portrayal of Rafael as a hero-figure is individualistic and unfair to Sandinista history. (Although even there, the importance of hero-figures like Che, Martin Luther King, Mao — in the context of real mass struggles — is not necessarily a bad thing.)
But this film was really about something more important for U.S. audiences to see and think about. It depicted a man and a woman who represent and enjoy the privileges and glory of the bourgeois press in its amoral, often exploitative role of using revolutionary movements and struggles to sell papers. The reporters themselves may gain fame and fortune. What the movie showed — albeit in an oversimplified, shallow way — was two people coming to sympathize with "the other side" to such an extent that they jeopardize their careers as they commit themselves to helping a third world revolutionary movement. This is the film's dramatic intent, I would argue, and not its more obvious "journalism and objectivity" theme. Young men and women who saw Nick Nolte as a hero in trashy films like 48 HOURS now could see him as a journalist who cares and acts. For example, my own teenage son and many of my college age students were moved by this new aspect of superstar heroism. Hollywood usually pushes as a way of life cynicism, self-interest and fame and money at all costs. It's one of the main ways ideology functions to keep young people from becoming politically active. Again and again, film and TV tell us that human nature is as capitalism has presently made it: unprincipled, uncaring, and incapable of changing itself or the world. In such a world, it's remarkable to see an image of a Hollywood tough guy moving — no matter how quickly and impulsively — from the white professional big-time to a position of support and activism, at risk of personal loss.
It is a serious and common error of left film critics to judge movies by abstract aesthetic and political standards which discount the political and social reality in which the films are viewed. As an activist as well as a media critic, I think it's important to think in terms of this country's political realities and how a film will affect and perhaps change dominant attitudes about political issues. Central American activists whom I have spoken to — a member of AMES (the Salvadoran Women's Association), a representative of the FDR, and a Nicaraguan consul in the U.S. — have praised MISSING and UNDER FIRE because of their positive alternative and moving depictions of Central America and of U.S. citizens' options and even responsibilities. I respect these activists' insights. It is not melodramatic to say that Nicaragua is under siege and anticipates a U.S. invasion, and that this is a crisis of major proportion for U.S. leftists and for the people of Central America. No "left" film critic should ignore those flesh and blood realities. If this film convinces lots of people that we are "on the wrong side" again, and that it is in fact heroic and even "glamorous" to take a stand for justice at great personal expense, UNDER FIRE is a good movie to have around. To be sure, WHEN THE MOUNTAINS TREMBLE is a better one. But that is not the point. How many already unconvinced people will see WHEN THE MOUNTAINS TREMBLE? It's fine, even crucial, to have leftists on the east and west coasts see wonderful political movies. But for different reasons, a slicker, more superficial movie like UNDER FIRE may be equally important. These reasons are due to its potential audience size and composition, and its rare portrayal of political commitment and activism as a key element in Hollywood "heroism."
I agree with all Marjorie Bray's observations about UNDER FIRE but one. The journalists did not falsify the photograph of the dead Sandinista leader because the truth of his death would have disheartened the revolutionaries. They falsified the photograph because Somoza was using "Rafael's" death to prove that he, Somoza, was worthy of receiving U.S. military aid (at a time when many in the United States had written him off as a losing dictator.) The message here is not that the revolution needs a big lie, but that it is difficult to be a neutral reporter when the flow of information is part of a greater system of imperialism. The film demonstrates that it would be unreasonable to ask the present Nicaraguan government to place no restrictions on the press.