steven’s spotify top 20
the lure of the canon

#50: under fire (roger spottiswoode, 1983)

(This is the first of 50 pieces I’ll post here over the next several months. They originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

These lists are intended to reflect our 50 favorite movies rather than the 50 best movies. I am aware that there is no difference between “favorite” and “best” for some people. My guess is I’ll have more fave-not-best films at the bottom of my list, and more best-and-fave films near the top. I might love Re-Animator, but I’m incapable of making it #1. #49, maybe.

Under Fire could just as easily be called "Under the Radar,” for all the attention it has gotten over the years. The director, Roger Spottiswoode, broke in as an editor for Sam Peckinpah and later directed a James Bond movie. The leads were played by Nick Nolte, Joanna Cassidy, and Gene Hackman, with Ed Harris and Jean-Louis Trintignant in support. The musical score by Jerry Goldsmith was nominated for an Oscar, and the writer, Ron Shelton, went on to make Bull Durham. It got positive reviews from Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael.

But its domestic gross was under $6 million, it is not on anyone’s Best Ever lists, and it lacks even the kind of cult status that keeps a movie in the spotlight.

In short, the perfect movie to start my Top 50 list. Among the reasons it is a favorite of mine: I love Gene Hackman, everyone in the cast is excellent, it’s a movie about adults, it presents a realistic-enough look at Nicaragua in 1979, and it raises interesting points about the role of journalists. It also includes a scene that prefigures Ron Shelton’s later work in movies about sports. A young rebel is admired for his skills at grenade throwing. He signs a baseball and asks Cassidy’s character to take it back to the U.S. to give to major-league pitcher Dennis Martinez, a fellow Nicaraguan who is beloved in his native country. He puts on a Baltimore Orioles cap (Martinez played many years for the O’s); later, he fires a grenade at the opposition, after which he says they should tell Martinez that the rebel’s curve ball is better and that he has a good scroogy.

Under Fire also demonstrates how even a liberal American film can’t escape some of our underlying beliefs. While the film is sympathetic towards the Sandinistas, the plot revolves around the actions of the American journalists, who are necessary parts of the hoped-for revolution. The political assumption is that natives can’t create a successful revolution without the help of the Americans; the box-office assumption is that Americans won’t pay to see a movie about Central American revolutionaries without putting American heroes at the center of the film. Given that the movie flopped, that latter assumption would seem to have been rendered pointless.


There weren’t a lot of comments for this one … I’m not sure many people had seen it. Under the radar, indeed. This marked the first appearance of my “favorite vs. best” quandary, which no one else suffered from.




When I used to teach documentary film, I always used a clip from "Under Fire" to illustrate the unanticipated consequences that can arise when you photograph someone.

One of Joanna Cassidy's best roles, not that she ever got many.

Steven Rubio

Teaching this in conjunction with a course on documentaries makes perfect sense. I only used the film in a class once, so long ago that I no longer remember how it went.

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