It amazes me how a quality motion picture musical score can sometimes elevate the entire experience of the film, even when the story and characters may not be all that significant, compelling or interesting. Composer Jerry Goldsmith had that incredible skill. In his long career from the mid-1950 to his death in 2004, Goldsmith’s many musical scores simply added so much extra feeling, mood, atmosphere and compelling emotions to films like: “Planet of Apes”(1968), “Patton” (1970), “Chinatown” (1974) or even “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979). Oddly Goldsmith’s only Oscar was for his score to the popular 1976 horror film “The Omen.”
Yet, one of my all-time favorite Goldsmith musical scores was to Roger Spottiswoode’s 1983 rather overlooked, yet compelling political thriller “Under Fire.” Here Goldsmith’s full orchestrations add a distinct Latin flavor (with expressive guitar solos by Pat Metheny), which further contributes so much passion to this tale about American photojournalists in Nicaragua during the 1979 revolution and the fall of the Anastasia Somoza regime.
Although the screenplay is mostly fictional, it is noted by several sources to be based on the murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart by Nicaraguan National Guard troops in June 1979, caught on camera by ABC cameraman Jack Clark.
Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Ed Harris, starred in a story and screenplay by Ron Shelton and Clayton Frohman, which questions the moral dilemma of reporters appearing to take sides on a political crisis for the sake of their own professional career enhancement.
Nolte is a skilled American photojournalist Russell Price, who is in Central American covering the Somoza overthrow. He takes lots of risks for just the right images. His close friend, the famed war correspondent, Alex Grazier (Hackman) is suffering through last days of a relationship with his lover Claire (Cassidy), who is also skilled radio correspondent/journalist. What develops among all the political upheaval is an odd love triangle as Price quickly finds Claire quite enticing. The three lead performances are uniquely compelling as they remain friends through their emotional transitions.
Part of Alex and Claire’s problem is that he wants to seriously settle into a state-side news anchor job, while Claire enjoys her work and likes living out of her suitcases.
Price, on the other hand, would desperately love to photograph the mysterious head of the underground liberation, a man named Rafael, who is rumored to be killed. When one colleague accused Price of taking sides in the conflict he reprimands him, “I don’t take sides, I take pictures.”
Price befriends a ruthless American mercenary named Oates (Harris) who is working for various factions of the conflict and may even be a covert CIA agent. Trintignant, the famed French star making his English language debut, plays Monsieur Jazy, a spy who is working for the government. Rene Enriquez plays Anastasia Somoza.
The amazing British cinematographer John Alcott captures such a realistic feel for the countryside and the violence of the conflicts between the protesting villagers and guerilla fighters and Somoza’s soldiers. There is such constant tension and suspense as Price, Alex and Claire ride through the war torn streets and past numerous roadblocks in cars marked with white flags and the word “Prenza” (press) displayed on the fenders.
Spottiswoode noted the importance of Goldsmith’s score on the film’s soundtrack cd cover: “From the inception of Ron Shelton’s screenplay I left Jerry Goldsmith would be able to illuminate the complexities of the moral choices facing the characters, while at the same time, taking us musically into the heart of the revolution.” “His score takes us on an emotional voyage into a foreign world and makes it real and acceptable. In a masterly stroke he chooses pan flutes as the instrumental heart of the score. Their sound can be small and personal, as well as strong and vigorous.” His score “brought to the film not only his customary fine artistry, but also, and most importantly, great humanity.”
Famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael heaped praise on the film in her October 31, review noting, “It’s been made with breathtaking skill.” “Produced at a cost of eight and a half million dollars and with fifty-seven shooting days “Under Fire” is a beautiful piece of new-style classical movie making; everything is thought out and prepared, but it isn’t explicit, it isn’t labored and it certainly isn’t over composed.” “The script is often edgy and maliciously smart.”
Years later, Quentin Tarantino would borrow one of Goldsmith’s tunes from the film’s end credits titled “Nicaragua” for a sequence in his 2012 film “Django Unchained.”