IN THE LINE OF FIRE (1993)
A Secret Service agent who couldn't save John F. Kennedy's life is determined not to let a clever assassin take out the current president.
It’s strange and enviable to think back to a time when mid-budget thrillers were the bread and butter of major film studios; the dependable money-makers that could compete against any summer blockbuster. That time was the 1990s, a decade populated with thrillers that ranged from the lascivious and sleazy (the terrific Basic Instinct and the lesser Wild Things), to the middle-brow and respectable (The Fugitive and The Insider being two of the finest).
Somewhere between these were thrillers like Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994); movies made with a sturdiness if not a flashiness, designed to deliver little more than a fun couple of hours at the cinema. They lack the subversion of Paul Verhoeven, or the prestige of Michael Mann.
However, they’ve carved out a legacy through familiarity, maturing into works that will be showing on some late night channel somewhere in the world at any given time, and probably until the sun burns out. If it’s gone midnight and you can’t sleep, there’s a good chance you’ll find In the Line of Fire (1993) is playing somewhere; a cosy and unremarkable political thriller packed with character actors, quiet conversations, and the occasional foot chase. It’s the soothing cinematic equivalent of a late night tumbler of whiskey.
Clint Eastwood had just starred in and directed his masterpiece, Unforgiven (1992), a haunting rumination on a career in front of the screen and behind the barrel of a gun, when he became a screen hero all over again as Agent Frank Horrigan in In the Line of Fire. Unforgiven felt like a swan-song, but the unfathomably hard-working Eastwood was really just moving into the next phase of his incredible career. He was older, no longer interested in keeping up with the young cowboys, and he’d lost the angry energy that had fuelled Dirty Harry (1971). If Unforgiven marked the end of one chapter and laid to rest the aspirations of staying young and riding the plains, then In the Line of Fire was the beginning of the next chapter—one in which his age is worn without shame or denial.
The story follows Frank, an experienced Secret Service agent with decades of experience. He’s good at what he does; so good in fact that the job eclipses the rest of his life. Divorced and liable to spend most evenings playing jazz piano in lonely bars, the married-to-his-job trope wanders close to cliché, but Eastwood’s gravitas gives it truth. We first meet him on an undercover job, infiltrating a group of counterfeiters (led by Saw’s Tobin Bell with an alarmingly full head of hair) with young agent and would-be protege Al (Dylan McDermott).
There’s the usual tough-talk, smirking bad guys and, naturally, the meeting takes place on a boat. The sense of danger (or lack thereof) is established in this scene. A clear and easily defeated villain is presented, the emotional stakes are raised with the inclusion of Al… a stand-off ensues, and Frank, of course, has everything in hand. He gets the bad guys, rescues his partner when he’s attacked, and on the drive back to the office gives nuggets of wisdom to his rattled partner. “You’ll make a great agent,” he tells him. “I know things about people.”
It’s nothing you haven’t seen in any cop procedural, and, if made today, it’s not hard to imagine In the Line of Fire being a TV series rather than a film, where each episode’s wrapped up neatly and our hero lives to fight another day. It’s unexceptional, but satisfying. Before long, we’re introduced to the mysterious villain of the film, Mitch Leary, played by John Malkovich in a commanding and chilling performance. We soon discover that Mitch knows a lot about Frank, including the fact he was working on John F Kennedy’s security detail the day he was assassinated… and failed to jump into action. For reasons later revealed, Mitch now plans to assassinate the current POTUS and, of course, Frank, hoping to make up for his past failings, is the only man who can stop him.
Malkovich is typically excellent. His softly-spoken manner snaps to volatility in a terrifying instant, and the film’s at its best when he and Eastwood are sharing a call. There’s a tenderness and kinship to their relationship, and a strange intimacy even when the FBI are listening in. It’s a shame, then, that his plan and his motives are so paint-by-numbers. Jeff Maguire’s screenplay lacks the insight and nuance to give Mitch any depth, which is particularly disappointing given the political thrust of the film. In this central conflict, it all remains frustratingly generic as the film heads from one episodic encounter to the next (complete with Malkovich in some ludicrous disguises).
While the drama fails to truly ignite, director Wolfgang Peterson at least finds something more substantial whenever focussing on the dynamic between Frank and his colleagues. Frank’s aware of his age but not embarrassed by it—as he knows it gives him a wealth of knowledge and experience. But there’s a condescending and infantilising attitude in the office. A young agent (played with supreme snottiness by Gary Cole) seems to exist just to undermine Frank.
Meanwhile, his superior, Sam (John Mahoney, perhaps the most welcome face popping up), consistently reminds him that he’s not a young buck anymore. Funnily, Mahoney was only a decade younger than Eastwood, and that neglible age gap highlights the hypocrisy of his argument. After napping in his office after an afternoon on duty, Frank wakes to find a team of paramedics looming over him, his colleagues crowded at the door suppressing giggles. It’s a prank, as they’ve joked a hard day’s work has given him a heart attack. To be sure, one of Frank’s most unkillable enemies is not his age, but ageism.
He needs his naysayers to see that he can still do the job, still make up for the mistakes of his past. His self-doubt is moving; Eastwood has the impeccable ability to wear every year he’s lived on his face for all to see. He’s a real life Mount Rushmore; a man with history carved into his granite-like face. For an audience to be able to track an on-screen life from 1955 to the present day (Eastwood is currently directing and starring in Cry Macho, slated for release later this year) is unusual and wonderful. He’s a thoroughly modern phenomena, and Peterson understands that power.
In a brilliant visual trick, clips of a young Eastwood are superimposed into the background of news clips featuring past presidents. It’s remarkably well done for a nearly 30-year-old film, and serves as a potent reminder of just how long Eastwood has been not only working, but staying relevant and vital. It’s a tender moment—one that’s a love letter to Eastwood, and a poignant marker of time and its passing, something that can only really be done in the medium of film.
It further iconises Eastwood, yet it makes him seem apart from everything around him. All of Frank’s old friends are retired or dead, the job’s changing and it’s no secret they want him out. In the vein of The Fugitive’s Richard Kimble and The Insider‘s Jeffrey Wigand, Frank is the lonely man fighting against the system, but too set in his ways to know how to function outside of it. It doesn’t mean he keeps it to himself, however. He calls their jobs “window dressing”, pointless, dangerous jobs designed to make “the president look more presidential.” We never find out which party the president even belongs to, but it hardly matters: the whole thing’s a rolling half-time Super Bowl show, stripped of actual policy and replaced with bureaucracy and spectacle.
It all makes Frank seem even more lonely, especially when he arrives home to an empty apartment and throws on a Miles Davis record; seeming more like a private detective working lousy cases than someone in charge of keeping the most powerful man in the world alive. He might care about the job, but the job doesn’t care about him. No wonder he always answers the phone when Mitch calls.
“You look so young and able, Frank” Mitch whispers to him as he watches footage from the day JFK was killed. Mitch’s voice might as well be Frank’s inner monologue, a gentle and aching bringer of memories and remorse. Peterson shoots these nocturnal phone calls with a dimly lit calmness, sort of fugue state conversations that play like a TV that has been left on after you’ve fallen asleep. Shallow focus, deep shadows and split-diopters recall All the Presidents Men (1976), a reminder of what a great debt the thrillers of the ’90s owed to those of the 1970s. Shades of the loneliness in Klute (1971) is present, and Frank’s weary cynicism plays like an aged up version of Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe from The Long Goodbye (1973).
But while those films are most comfortable staying in moral and narrative grey areas, In the Line of Fire is often too binary and too formulaic to fully delve into the darkness that Mitch hints at. There isn’t the sense of danger necessary to make it a fully effective thriller, nor is there a real sense that Frank is anything other than a good guy. Time after time, it falls into broad narrative platitudes that seem to exist to fill a quota. There’s a death so comically signposted that it brings no impact, and a deeply misguided romantic subplot that never begins to make sense (Rene Russo does her best in an underwritten part, but she and Eastwood have no chemistry together.)
The set-pieces are a mixed bag, too. A particularly exciting sequence set at a presidential rally sees a flu-ridden Frank paranoid and jumpy, with the legendary Anne V. Coates’ editing giving the scene a dizzying, frenetic edge. Meanwhile, a rooftop foot-chase is masterfully cut and poundingly fun, but it also serves as the point after which the film loses some of its energy, with a baggy third act that is little more than perfunctory.
At some points it’s as if the film is ticking boxes, mechanically moving from one item on the checklist to the next, with small respites in between when the humanity is allowed back in. Take, for instance, a scene in which Frank recalls the day JFK was killed. Eastwood’s performance here is disarming, Peterson’s direction careful and spacious. It’s a beautiful moment and sadly, far more interesting than any of the action or the too-easy conclusion that follows.
And that’s the problem with In the Line of Fire. It’s an undoubtedly entertaining film, but it’s thoroughly unspectacular and unsurprising. Its need to adhere to Hollywood formula trips it up and holds it within rigid confines. But as a star vehicle for Eastwood, it’s more successful. What the film signals to us about his career is interesting, and the self-reflexive question it grapples with about ageing out of a job (in this case, hollywood leading man is swapped for secret agent) makes it an essential addition to the Eastwood canon.
Frank is old-fashioned, and so is the film. That can be good and bad. It may not be the kind of film that lingers after viewing, its shape just too much of a template. But if it catches you in the right mood, In the Line of Fire might hit the spot: undemanding, old-school, and familiar. For better or for worse, they don’t make them like this anymore.
USA | 1993 | 128 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Wolfgang Petersen.
writer: Jeff Maguire.
starring: Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, Gary Cole, Fred Dalton Thompson & John Mahoney.