I did not suspect until recently that a large number of journalists rapidly converging on the capital of a small, poor country in great trouble might be a chilling sight. For nearly a decade I had often been part of such a group—a large and peculiar family of our own invention. But two years ago, in El Salvador, the spectacle of the huge press corps clotting the lobby of the Hotel Camino Real in San Salvador struck me as ludicrous and, to my surprise, somewhat shameful. There might have been as many as five hundred journalists in San Salvador that week; even a Turkish newspaper had sent its own man. What rose from them, as unmistakable as leaking gas, was their collective conceit. The preoccupation of the newly arrived journalists was not with the wretched country or its people but rather with the immediate and quite meaningless “story” and how far it would take them in their careers. I had been that way myself. In the hotel lobby, that embarrassing place, four friends found me, men who had covered Vietnam in the years I did. We rarely saw each other in New York but our embraces that night were warm. I went off to dinner with them, heard their operatic stories once again, and knew that the old circus had begun to lose the music I had heard so often and loved.
There is much in Under Fire that shows American journalists at their most indulgent and childlike, and there are also scenes that point up the astonishing courage they often need and always seem to possess. A small scene early on in the film—you might say its plot is about a photographer and the senior correspondent for a news magazine, both in love with the same woman, all three covering the national insurrection in Nicaragua in 1979—shows the high spirits of journalists arriving in Managua for a new war, bunching together by the side of the pool at their hotel. A pretty television reporter is making a little game by reciting what sums of money, borrowed in other currencies quite useless to them now, are owed to whom by whom. Nick Nolte joins the group. He plays Russell Price, a freelance photographer often on assignment for Time—overweight, inarticulate, blunt, obsessive, a man whose face is so closed that it comes as a slight shock when the narrow, deep-set eyes show anything more complicated than lust. Price starts another game by asking the woman to tell him what happened on November 2, 1963, but she is young and ignorant and answers, “Martin Luther King’s I-have-a-dream speech.” Price corrects her: the assassination of Diem. He has his own reason for remembering the date, and it has little to do with the history of Vietnam. Price and Alex Grazier, the correspondent who is played by Gene Hackman, sing out the significance of that day in a jokey refrain: “First Cover.” The first time, that is, that one of Price’s photographs made the Time cover. So the photographer has been at it for sixteen years, the correspondent even longer. They are together in Chad when Under Fire begins, covering the long civil war there, but Nicaragua is the “hot” new war, the place to be.
Gene Hackman’s correspondent reminded me of what the novelist Ward Just wrote in a short story called “Journalism.” A former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Just wrote about how a woman reporter perceived her colleagues in the days when the profession was largely male: “Like journalists everywhere, they believed they could easily have been something else: soldiers, diplomats, ministers of the interior, novelists, innkeepers. They used their profession like a suit of armor. She thought of them sometimes as crazed medieval warriors, clanking around the battlefield in cuirass and basinet, invulnerable to the calamities they witnessed. They were not heartless men, far from it, but they saw themselves as recorders and nothing more and had contempt for younger colleagues who sought personal and professional involvement.”
Under Fire is not really a film about love, or journalists at work, but about the unwritten contract that rules the behavior of each journalist.
Although photographers, God knows, have different wiring inside their brains, see and measure things sometimes very differently from those who write, and must expose themselves to greater peril than others do, Nolte’s character at the beginning of the film belongs to that description too. There is something loutish about this Russell Price, who is only interested in finding the leader of the revolution, Rafael, and photographing him, and is not particularly interested in why there is an uprising against Somoza.
Under Fire is not really a film about love, or journalists at work, but about the unwritten contract that rules the behavior, however eccentric, however unsatisfactory, of each journalist. It is not a pledge to be “objective,” whatever that implies, but a commitment to act as an impartial observer, never a combatant, never a blatant propagandist. Nolte, by taking a photograph of Rafael when he is dead so it can be used to reassure the Nicaraguan people that their leader still lives, and to persuade Washington not to move ahead with an arms shipment for Somoza, ruins himself. Another journalist, Claire Stryder (Joanna Cassidy) is with him at guerrilla headquarters when he does so, and keeps her silence. Both choose sides, although at first Price protests. “I’m a journalist,” he says, shocked, to the group of Sandinistas asking him to take the picture of the corpse. But Rafael’s body is placed upright in a chair, the head pushed back, the dead eyes opened, hands placed on a map, and Price takes the picture they so desperately need. The photograph is published everywhere. Price becomes a condemned man, forced to conceal what he has done, but both the Americans believe the fraudulent photograph will hasten the end of the war.
(A word about Joanna Cassidy: I had to see Under Fire twice before I caught on that she is supposed to be a radio reporter. This explains the banal comments she sometimes makes into a tape recorder. In Chad we see her dictating a story into a telephone, but it didn’t immediately occur to me that that is what she is doing. Is the line between New York and N’Djamena so clear that she did not have to raise her voice? Few will dispute that simply watching Cassidy is a pleasure, but she is wretchedly cast. Her face and her laugh and her good figure and the charming way she runs, bringing her heels up so high, don’t compensate for the flatness of her performance. It is a pity that she is meant to represent the many intelligent women who are now covering Central America.)
Some people will be deeply offended by Russell Price’s dilemma in Under Fire and tell you that real photographers who get on the cover of Time would never do such a thing. Others will not be so sure. Early on in the film the Russell Price we see is the man we expect, the journalist who stays neutral, not favoring one side over the other, without any convictions of his own. One haunting scene, quite perfect in its way, shows Price being shoved into a cell with a Nicaraguan priest, who is kicked as the American is brought in. The face of the priest makes clear the abuse he has already endured. Price, who rarely stops smoking, shares a cigarette with him, and explains that he is not a political prisoner, that he is a journalist who takes no sides. “No sides?” asks the priest faintly. And then his advice to Price: “Go home.”
Under Fire shows why Price became the man willing to take a photograph that is to be a death sentence of sorts for him. He has spent too many years in combat zones and reaches a breaking point, and then, just once, understands a passionate plea to render service to one side. So he is not a contemptible or foolish man but at last a very human one—something has reached his heart and made him unfit to go on in his profession, not the most grievous thing to happen to someone who has seen all that he has seen. (We need not worry too much about real war photographers being corrupted in just this way. Even in their strange worlds there is small chance they will be asked to fake a photograph of a corpse. It struck me as odd that Rafael’s corpse was so supple, that rigor mortis had not set in, for I had been told in Northern Ireland, at the funerals of IRA men, that the fingers of the dead men had to be broken so they could be viewed in their caskets holding a rosary.)
What finishes Price is not the sin of having accommodated the rebel leaders but the use to which his other photographs are put. His film on Sandinistas at their headquarters is stolen and given to an American mercenary (Ed Harris), who then tracks down the rebels in their civilian lives and murders them. Price learns all this by discovering the American butchering the Nicaraguans whose pictures had been taken. The sorrow and the fury deforming Nolte’s large cementlike face in this scene is more moving than I would have thought possible.
Scenes of street fighting, filmed in Mexico, are so haunting that credit must be given to the cinematographer of Under Fire, John Alcott. On the other hand, objections could be raised about historical distortions. During the real insurrection, for instance, there was not simply one rebel leader. The Sandinista National Liberation front, formed in 1961, combined several existing armed movements and was headed by three men. In 1975 they began a campaign to expel Somoza. A false impression is also given by the scene in which a group of Sandinistas break into the nightclub where the journalists are celebrating and kidnap a man. The impression is given that bands of terrorist thugs roamed Managua, which was not the case.
There may be some objections that the actual murder of a newsman is vulgarized in Under Fire. Roger Spottiswoode, the director, is not, after all, Costa-Gavras. But I think he should be forgiven. In 1979, the ABC-TV correspondent Bill Stewart was detained at a checkpoint in Managua, forced to kneel with his hands over his head, then shot at point-blank range by a National Guardsman while a member of his television crew recorded it all. The parallel scene in the film shows what a lunatic, septic, murderous place Somoza’s Nicaragua was. Alex Grazier saunters to a checkpoint expecting a hassle, but faking civility and patience because the soldiers are armed. Price waits in the car, diverting himself by taking pictures of Grazier. He records his friend being shot just as a real ABC cameraman once did. My hope is that some moviegoers will remember Stewart and know this is not a fictitious episode.
I suspect that many people after seeing Under Fire will be persuaded that photographs from a war zone have immense power. But they do not in fact change the minds of heads of state, or generals, or bishops, or those in charge of the secret police. Nor have the affable Americans now instructing yet another conscripted army of small, poor soldiers been much affected by photographs of casualties in past wars. And, after all, the North Vietnamese did not prevail in April 1975 because of Eddie Adams’s famous photograph of the handcuffed man being shot in the head by a South Vietnamese general.
Probably the most remarkable photographer of wars still among us is the Englishman Don McCullin, who must be older now than Price is in Under Fire. He has taken pictures—with punishing skill—in Biafra, Cyprus, the Congo, India, Bangladesh, Northern Ireland, Vietnam, Lebanon, and El Salvador. It is not by accident that McCullin chose as the title for one of the collections of his photographs these words: Is Anyone Taking Any Notice?