Back on April 18, 1945, as the Battle of Okinawa raged in WWII’s Pacific Theatre, arguably the most beloved reporter in the field, Ernie Pyle, was felled by enemy fire. Nine years later, while covering the First Indochina War, photographer Robert Capa, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the man solely responsible for the only photos of D-Day’s first-wave landings, was killed by a landmine.
In the years since, the mortality rate of journalists worldwide has increased exponentially.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 1,190 journalists have been killed since 1992, the annual totals creeping ever higher in this post-9/11 world. From 2002-2015, the number of journalists killed per year covering such hotspots such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Afghanistan, or reporting on terror organizations such as Boko Haram, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, has averaged about 56, with 74 the high watermark in 2012. Some of the more well-known include Tim Hetherington (d. 2011, Libya), Daniel Pearl (d. 2002, Pakistan) and the spectacularly formidable Marie Colvin (d. 2012, Syria).
One should note that these statistics only include deaths where the CPJ is “reasonably certain that a journalist was murdered in direct reprisal for his or her work; was killed in crossfire during combat situations; or was killed while carrying out a dangerous assignment such as coverage of a street protest.” Add to that deaths where the organization wasn’t able to definitively ascertain the reason behind a media members death and the number skews higher.
So why report from the front lines? No doubt there’s a certain thrill to be had–great fear can induce an overwhelming feeling of being alive and fully in the moment, which, in turn, is probably pretty addictive. (One pictures Ernest Hemingway barnstorming across Europe, sidearm holstered at the hip, writing about D-Day, the liberation of Paris and the Battle of Hürtgen Forest.)
That intense, drug-like adrenaline rush aside, I assume that those attracted to conflict zones do so because they feel its their professional duty to report on the terrible toll arising from conflict. “I have been a war correspondent for most of my professional life,” said Marie Colvin, in a speech honoring fallen members of the press corps. “It has always been a hard calling. But the need for frontline, objective reporting has never been more compelling. Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice.”
So…with that little preamble, on to the two films I’d like to discuss that feature reporters risking their lives in war zones, both, incidentally, released in 1983:
The Year of Living Dangerously (dir. Peter Weir)
Synopsis: A young, dashing, not-yet-hateful-or-erratic Mel Gibson plays Guy Hamilton, a wet-behind-the-ears reporter looking to make a name for himself in Jakarta as the Indonesian government, led by President Sukarno, spirals towards chaos in the mid-1960s.
After some initial stumbles (the resident foreign press corps aren’t particularly interested in helping him find his footing), he’s befriended by a Chinese-Australian dwarf named Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), an well-connected photojournalist who begins feeding Hamilton hard-to-get information and facilitates interviews with key governmental players.
With his protege on the rise, Kwan decides to introduce Hamilton to his friend Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), who works at British embassy. As is wont when two beautiful people meet in the tropics, Hamilton and Bryant soon begin a torrid and sweaty affair, the catalyst an ill-advised and incredibly dangerous running of an armed roadblock, dramatically scored to Vangelis‘ “L’Enfant,” after the two leave an embassy party.
A human puppeteer of sorts (a visual motif used at one point during the proceedings) and the film’s moral center, Kwan soon becomes disillusioned with both Hamilton (he’s turning out to be a selfish jerk in his quest for legitimacy) and President Sukarno (he’s ignoring the basic needs of the Indonesian people), which leads to a fateful, terribly rash, decision. Meanwhile, Hamilton, severely injured in a confrontation with a soldier, struggles to find a way out of the country as horrific reprisals for the failed coup d’état begin in earnest.
Conflicted Film Snob Thoughts: Needless to say, I’m a great admirer of this film, an earlier effort from the great Peter Weir, the Australian director behind such classics as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Witness, The Truman Show and Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World, among others. While Gibson and Weaver are fine, from an acting standpoint the show is stolen by Linda Hunt, who somehow convincingly plays a man. As a matter of fact, so effective is her performance that anyone entering the film without pre-knowledge of her sex would be hard pressed to notice anything amiss. Which is the ultimate compliment (even though it sounds like a snarky putdown). The Academy agreed, honoring Hunt’s clever portrayal with a Best Supporting Actress award (1983), which is interesting (and confusing) considering she played a dude.
Another thing I find terrific about this film is Weir’s use of the tropics–the overwhelming heat, the lush foliage, the terraced fields, the outdoor markets, the smoky braziers, the sudden downpours–to add mystery and tension of the story. As far as I’m concerned, coup d’etats, love affairs, and political unrest just play better drenched in sweat. Add to that Maurice Jarre’s Far Eastern-inflected score and the film just oozes exotic menace.
Finally, the film features one of my favorite kinds of endings, the old will-he-or-won’t-he-make-the-last-flight-out race against time.
If you haven’t already seen, this is definitely a film worth checking out. While not available on Blu-ray, pseudo high definition versions can be found on download services such as Apple TV, YouTube and Amazon. Here’s the trailer:
Under Fire (dir. Roger Spottiswoode)
Synopsis: Co-written by Ron Shelton (who you may recall as the writer-director of 1988’s Bull Durham), Under Fire stars a young, dashing, not-yet-erratic Nick Nolte as Russell Price, a war photographer extraordinaire (not long after the movie opens we see a shot Price took of a skirmish in Chad make the cover of Time magazine) now covering Nicaragua’s brutal Somoza dictatorship and its war against the Sandinistas, this in the late 1970s.
Soon we meet Alex and Claire Grazier (Gene Hackman and Joanna Cassidy), a married couple also part of the press corps (he a writer for Time magazine, she a radio broadcaster). It seems Alex is heading to New York City to accept a cushy TV anchor gig, which isn’t all that heartbreaking to either Claire or Price considering the two are having an affair under Alex’ nose. With Alex gone, Price and Claire find themselves both free to cuckold and, more importantly, dig deeper into the nasty little Nicaraguan conflict they came to cover. Eventually witnessing one too many atrocities committed by the Somoza dictatorship, they begin to lose their objectivity.
Which leads them to agree to take a picture for the insurrections. Their subject: the Sandinistas’ enigmatic leader, Rafael. Problem is, he’s dead. But with Price being such a gifted photographer, the Sandinista honchos figure he can make him look alive, which will keep the insurrection from folding. Shortly after, Alex returns to interview the mysterious Rafael, figuring Price and Claire can easily provide an introduction. Oops. Things go downhill from there. The affair is outed, the photographic fakery is admitted, which leaves Alex enraged and in a position to ruin both Price’s and Claire’s careers. Before that can happen, however, a shocking murder takes front stage, one that Price inadvertently photographs.
Pursued by Somoza’s troops, he finds himself on the run in backwater Nicaragua desperately looking for a way to get the film to the U.S. press corps. Will he succeed? Will the love triangle be resolved maturely? Will Price and Claire lose their press credentials? Guess you’ll have to see the movie.
Conflicted Film Snob Thoughts: Under Fire, a personal favorite of The Conflicted Film Snob, provides viewers plenty shades of grey to chew on: journalistic objectivity/integrity, the push-pull of one’s internal moral compass, the chaos inherent to war zones, the value of one American citizen’s life versus that of thousands of suffering locals (“Fifty thousand Nicaraguans have died and now a Yankee, notes a nurse in an aid station. “Perhaps now America will be outraged at what has happened here. Maybe we should have killed an American journalist fifty years ago.”)
The acting is uniformly terrific, even beyond the three main players. A very young Ed Harris (bald even back then!) injects tons of personality and humor into Oates, an acquaintance of Price’s and, it seems, a brutal mercenary working for the Somoza regime.
Richard Masur is pitch-perfect as slimy PR guy, Hub Kittle. And, finally, the great French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, Z, The Conformist, Three Colors: Red, Amour) makes Marcel Jazy, a spy and aesthete, never less than likable despite his despicable actions.
Director Roger Spottiswoode does a fine job handling the material, never leaning on flashy overstatement, especially the scene involving the shocking murder of a person who will remain nameless for spoiler purposes, a murder inspired by the real-life death of ABC reporter Bill Stewart, who was shot by Somoza’s troops in Managua on June 20, 1979. Filmed using Price’s POV in a parked car far from the negotiations between soldiers and the doomed reporter, Spottiswoode ratchets the tension by cutting between long shots and closeups, the latter as seen through Price’s telephoto lens, until suddenly and shockingly, the violence erupts.
[Conflicted Film Snob aside: Spottiswoode, like so many directors in Hollywood, seems to have peaked with this film, an early effort. Although he eventually directed a James Bond movie (The World is Not Enough, which wasn’t very good), nothing he’s done since 1983 remotely approached the artistic success of Under Fire.]
Happily, this film is available on Blu-ray. But if you have to slum, it’s also available on your favorite streaming services. Here’s the trailer: