In the Line of Fire(1993), directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich, is a terrific political action thriller inspired from ‘The Day of the Jackal’. Eastwood plays the U.S. Secret Service agent who tries to stop Malkovich’s killer from assassinating the U.S. president.
“I thought Eastwood was terrific. . . . I liked the movie very much. . . . I think it was as realistic as it could be and still be a real rip-roaring thriller.”(Then) President Bill Clinton praising “In the Line of Fire” in an interview with CNN’s Larry King
By 1993, Clint Eastwood’s reputation as a bonafide American movie legend had been firmly established. The 63-year old superstar had an illustrious career dating back to the late-1950s, and for more than twenty years he has been the premier box office star in the world. Over and above all this, he had just produced, directed and starred in “Unforgiven“: a revisionist, downbeat Western which had turned out to be one of the biggest box office hits in his career. But more importantly, the film won him universal critical acclaim, as well as the appreciation of his peers- in the form of multiple Oscar nominations (one for his acting as well) and 3 wins (including best picture and director), something that had eluded him up to that time, despite directing and acting in some truly great films. Clint, by then, had grown out of his cool, macho, action hero image that he had acquired through his violent Westerns – like the ‘Man with no Name’ films – and highly popular urban action films, like the “Dirty Harry” series, and was looking to expand his artistic ambitions in a more serious direction. So it was surprising that as a follow-up to his highly decorated Western opus, Clint chose to make an urban political-action thriller, which would find him returning to his ‘Action’ hero roots. That’s not all, Clint, who had taken full control of his career since the 1970s by producing all his films and directing a majority of them, was now ‘only’ acting in this new film, titled “In the Line of Fire.” The German director, Wolfgang Petersen, who had broken out onto the international stage with the widely acclaimed war thriller “Das Boot,” was helming the film, and it was going to be backed by Columbia Pictures (as opposed to Clint’s regular studio Warner Bros.). As of today, this is the last time Clint relinquished his creative control over his film like this; all of Clint’s films after “In the Line..” will be made under his aegis. But despite Clint not involving that much in the creative process of the film, it still bears Clint’s filmmaking stamp. Wolfgang Petersen directs the film in a lean, straightforward and unobtrusive style that’s much preferred by Clint; Petersen, who would go on to become a bigtime Hollywood director post the success of this film, (directing splashy big budget extravaganzas like “Air Force One” and “Troy”) would concentrate on making a character-driven thriller that puts emphasis on careful plotting, character-interactions and slow build-up of suspense rather than slam-bang action. And to top it all, the film’s score is composed by the great Ennio Morricone, who had started his career alongside Clint and Sergio Leone with the iconic ‘Dollars” Spaghetti-Western series. This is Morricone’s fifth collaboration with Clint, and he provides an energetic score that appears to be culled majorly from his score for the Al Capone thriller “The Untouchables(1987)“
John F. Kennedy’s assassination has inspired several literary and film works, most famous one being Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, JFK. Frederick Forsyth’s novel “The Day of the Jackal,” a thriller based on a fictional assassination attempt against French President Charles de Gaulle in 1963, was a seminal literary work that has inspired countless works in literature and film, including two official movie adaptations. “In the Line of Fire” takes elements from, both, the real-life assassination of Kennedy as well as Forsyth’s novel to craft a gripping politic thriller set in contemporary times. In the film, Clint Eastwood plays USSS agent, Frank Horrigan , the only remaining active agent from the security detail that had guarded John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, at the time of his assassination in 1963. Since Kennedy’s assassination, Horrigan has been wracked with guilt over his failure to protect the president: it seems that he was drinking late into the the night the previous day, and hence, he failed to react quickly in shielding Kennedy from the fatal bullet, which could have saved the President’s life. This guilt drove Horrigan to become an alcoholic; unable to cope with him, his family left him. Now he’s all alone and washed-up, and is working on undercover operations busting counterfeiters. That’s where we meet Horrigan when the film opens; it’s a dangerous situation that’s unfolding: Horrigan’s partner, D’Andrea’s cover has been blown, and the leader of the counterfeit gang, Mendoza, is forcing Horrigan to prove his loyalty to him by killing D’Andrea. Horrigan successfully keep his cover on without killing his partner, and when the gang’s guard is down, shoots and kills Mendoza’s men, identifies himself as an agent, and arrests Mendoza. Though they have successfully completed the operation, the young & jittery D’Andrea is left shaken by the ordeal, while Horrigan is cool and tries his best to calm down his young partner. This scene works as a nice prologue to the main plot that’s about to unfold: it establishes Horrigan’s character and the relationship dynamic he shares with D’Andrea. It’s also interesting that the first job we see Horrigan successfully completing is busting counterfeiters; because USSS agency was founded in 1865 to combat the then-widespread counterfeiting of U.S. currency.
The film jumps into its main plot when Horrigan is called upon to investigate an individual named Joseph McCrawley. He has been absent from his apartment for a while now, and the suspicious landlady has filed a complaint. While searching the apartment, Horrigan is surprised to find an old photograph of himself standing behind John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, on the day Kennedy was assassinated. Soon, Horrigan receives a phone call from McCrawley, who calls himself “Booth” (he admires John Wilkes Booth because Booth had flair, panache – a leap to the stage after he shot Lincoln, as opposed to Oswald.). He tells Horrigan that he plans to kill the President, who is running for reelection and is making many public appearances around the country. Booth is soon revealed to be Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), an ex-CIA Assassin, who was dumped by the agency after he suffered a mental breakdown. Now the guy has turned into is a total psycho-predator, who has already killed a number of people before he started planning the killing of the president. Leary is a master criminal skilled in weapons and disguises, and soon, we will come to know that what he’s even better at is screwing with people’s minds, especially the ones he considers his kindred spirit. And to Horrigan’s misfortune, Leary considers him a friend- who was abandoned by his agency just as he was by his. Leary repeatedly calls Horrigan, keeping him abreast of his every move, and challenging him to stop him from assassinating the president. Meanwhile, Horrigan meets up with his old friend and superior, Secret Service Director Sam Campagna, and convinces him to put him back in president’s security detail. Horrigan’s reemergence as one of President’s security guards does not please the agency honchos or the Chief of Staff, but the move is happily welcomed by Leary, who’s excited with the prospect of upping his game as he goes up against Horrigan.
But Leary is least of Horrigan’s problems; he’s battling his personal demons, age-related vulnerabilities and angry superiors, as he tries his best to protect the president and nail Leary before the killer can carry out his nefarious plan. A couple of tense chases through the streets of Washington ensues in which Horrigan comes very close to nailing Leary; but every time Leary proves more resourceful; the second chase across the rooftops proves almost fatal for Horrigan ( a nod to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”), as he comes very close to being killed by Leary, but the latter, who’s more interested in keeping their cat & mouse game going, saves Horrigan, but kills D’Andrea instead. The death of his partner further shakes Harry, especially since he was indirectly responsible for it; and Leary uses this against him (in their subsequent phone communications) to further mentally weaken Horrigan. All this leads to Horrigan losing his cool on the job: on a particularly rainy day at a Chicago rally, he sets off panic by yelling out, “Gun!” when it was just balloons exploding. For publicly embarrassing the president, Horrigan is dismissed from the presidential detail. But Horrigan continues his hunt anyway, and manages to connect Leary to a bank employee’s murder and determines that Leary, who has made several large campaign contributions, is among the guests at a campaign dinner at a hotel in Los Angeles which will be attended by the President. Horrigan rushes to the dinner hall of the hotel, and manages to locate Leary, who’s about to shoot the president. Horrigan jumps into the path of Leary’s bullet, and saves the President’s life- finally, redeeming himself. Leary and Horrigan has one last encounter – this time face to face – in the hotel’s external elevator, where Horrigan manages to outsmart his nemesis once and for all.
At first glance, “In the Line of Fire” may appear to be a ‘Dirty Harry in Washington’ or ‘Dirty Harry in Secret Service,’ as Clint still plays the tough-as-nails lawman, who’s fiercely individualistic and pain-in-the-backside for his superiors, and who obsessively pursues his enemy, no matter what the consequences. But Clint, and the filmmakers, have taken pains to broaden the character’s range: by introducing realistic (age-related & work-related) physical and emotional vulnerabilities in the character. For starters, Clint plays a fully rounded character for a change, rather than a style-icon who wears chic clothes, drives chic cars, drives the chicks crazy, spits out glib witticisms and blows away his enemies (I’m a big fan of those too; they provide their own brand of pleasures, and Clint is one of the greatest Style icons we ever had). Clint’s character here has a well developed (and painful) backstory and an inner life; we see a wounded character looking for redemption, rather than a cold professional at work, or an avenging-angel ruthlessly pursuing his mortal enemy. We see Clint getting exhausted, getting injured, making mistakes, making a fool of himself, being ruthlessly taunted by his friends and foes; and we see Clint being at the mercy of his enemy (more than once). Back on president’s security detail, Horrigan finds it hard to keep up with his younger colleagues as he runs alongside President’s motorcade: he coughs and seats, as if he’s about to have a heart-attack. Not that this is all new for Clint: he had played some of these vulnerable elements before in “Tightrope,” “The Gauntlet” and “Honkytonk Man”, but never to this extend in a purely commercial action picture. But most of all, Clint finds it hard to charm the ladies anymore. Horrigan’s courtship of (the much younger) fellow agent Lilly Raines(Rene Russo) brings out the dormant ‘Romantic-comic’ persona of Clint in all its charm. It’s a side of him he hasn’t shown much, but it’s a refreshing aspect of this performance. Horrigan, who’s referred to as a ‘Dinosaur’ by his colleagues, is quite kicked by the idea of such a pretty female field agent (whom he mistakes for a secretary at first) working with him, and he tries some primitive tricks, like being openly flirtatious and peppering his conversations with sexual innuendos to win over Lily: At a state dinner at French embassy, Horrigan seems totally infatuated with a gorgeously dressed Lilly; calling her “devastating,” Horrigan’s eyes scan Lily from top to toe, an uncomfortable Lily asks him “Would you tell me what you’re looking for?,” Horrigan replies: “I was just wondering where you hide your firearm in that dress“, and then with a naughty wink & smile, he continues “Don’t tell me, let me guess.”
Usually in Clint’s movies, it’s the woman who puts the moves on him, but here he goes out of his way to court Lily: he takes her to the Lincoln memorial, buys her ice-cream and has a cozy chat during which he makes some snarky remarks about the presence of female agents being ‘only window dressing’ on part of the president to appease his female voters. When Lily had enough of this she gets up and walks away; and Horrigan makes a bet with himself: if she looks back at him before she reaches the car, then that means that she’s interested in him; Horrigan anxiously waits, and waits.., and she does turn around and look at him, which makes him light up like a bulb; then there’s something really cute that Clint does in the scene: he turns around, looks at Lincoln’s statue and with a smile, says wryly, “Well, Abe? Damn… wish I could have been there for you, pal.” In another scene Horrigan tries to win over Lily by playing “As time goes by” on the piano. Lily looks at Horrigan’s attempts at courtship with mild amusement and disdain, and when eventually she falls for him, she does not fall for the the incorrigible macho flirt, but for the sensitive & vulnerable older man- who’s wracked by guilt, and trying hard to overcome his personal demons, and is desperately seeking companionship while doing so. The scene where they tumble into bed (for the first and only time) generates the biggest laugh in the film; it gives you a good indication as to how hard it’s for secret agents to make love- with a succession of objects like handcuffs, guns, beepers, palm pilots, wrist watches and other ‘secret service’ gadgets dropping to the floor from each of their bodies; and they couldn’t even finish their lovemaking- interrupted by the ‘call of Duty’; Clint can only lie back on the bed and sigh, “Now I have to put all that stuff back on again.” Clint’s dry comic timing is spot on in each and every one of these moments.
Much later, we get a scene where Horrigan pours out his insecurities and regrets to Lily – in a very rare, overtly-emotional scene in a Clint film; as an actor, Clint goes for broke here, as his voice chokes and he comes close to tears by the end of the scene. It’s hinted at the end that Horrigan quits his job to be with Lily, who continues with her profession- “I vowed to never again let my career come between me and a woman,” he says at one point- again something new for a Clint hero. Even though the romantic angle is the least developed aspect of the film, I really liked that it exists: Rene Russo is a beautiful, charming actress, who can hold her own against a screen-titan like Clint, and as for Clint, it really brings out a side of him that we have seen only fleetingly in films like “Play Misty for Me,” “The Beguiled,” “Heartbreak Ridge,” and more prominently in “Bronco Billy.” Of course, just a couple of years after this film, he will do an even more romantic version of it in “Bridges of Madison County.”
The film also has a strong antagonist opposite Clint, and the film benefits immensely from this – the greater the villain, the greater the hero theory applies particularly for these type of action thrillers; and John Malkovich – in an Oscar nominated performance – makes the best kind of villain for this film. Both Clint’s and Malkovich’s contrasting acting styles complement each other. Mitch Leary is an intellectual villain, who plots and plans his every move and appearance in advance, while Horrigan is a guy who talks and works ‘in the moment’; and Malkovich’s measured and well-thought out line readings and body language stands in sharp contrast to Clint’s more spontaneous, straightforward performance. The difference in their physical appearance also add to their characters, especially in the climax, when we find the macho, imposing Clint on his knees and the more diminutive Malkovich towering over him. So, when Clint screams “Go ahead and shoot, ..Just one thing: Aim High” through his microphone to Lily in the film’s climax, it sounds deadly ironic; because usually when one aims high and shoots the gun, you are more likely to hit Clint than Malkovich. Every aspect of this film is so informed by Clint’s legendary star-persona – either highlighting it or subverting it – that it’s impossible to think of any other star in this role. So it was surprising for me to know that the role was originally offered to Sean Connery & Robert Redford (which i can understand to a point) and of all people, Dustin Hoffman (good heavens!). One can look at this film as a summation of Clint’s career as a hardboiled urban action hero- just like “Unforgiven” was a summation of his Western anti-heroes. In the opening ‘Counterfeit busting’ scene, Clint uses a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum revolver (his trademark gun from “Dirty Harry” films) to kill the bad guys; also, in a scene the image of Clint from the first “Dirty Harry” film was juxtaposed with that of President John F. Kennedy; and at the end of the film, his character retires from active service; also, he is not a loner anymore, as he has found the companionship of a good woman. So, I guess this film was Clint saying adieu to that ‘Don Siegel’ brand of pulpy yet lean & gritty action films, where he was the driven, loner anti-hero.