The 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy cast a long shadow over the second half of the 20th century and as its 30th anniversary approached there were several films that looked, some more directly than others, at its lasting echoes. In 1991 we had Oliver Stone’s conspiracy fueled JFK, late 1992 brought the still underseen Love Field, and with it an Oscar nomination for Michelle Pfeiffer. In The Line Of Fire isn’t directly about the assassination, but it figures into the background of Clint Eastwood’s character in a major way, and the timing of the release of a film about an attempt to assassinate a President, the weekend after July 4th and just a few months before the anniversary, was clearly no accident.
This is not the only way in which In The Line Of Fire is a backward looking film. If Unforgiven represented Eastwood allowing his career in westerns, and with it The Man With No Name, to slip into the sunset, this could be seen as him doing the same for Dirty Harry. In the opening sequence we see Eastwood as veteran Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan, working an undercover sting and weilding a 44. Magnum. The iconography immediately nods to Harry Callahan, and is just one of the ways that this film ends up feeling like something of an unofficial elegy for the character.
Of course, we have to look at In The Line Of Fire not just as a commentary on various aspects of the past, but as a film in its own right. It’s a good, solid, thriller. 25 years on, it feels of its time because I’m not sure I could imagine a reasonably budgeted film with this plot being so procedural any more. Made today, I suspect Horrigan would be played by someone like Liam Neeson and the film would fall squarely into his work in the geri-action subgenre. What we get here is a more reflective film, driven not by a clash of fists but of personalities in Eastwood’s cop, still traumatised by the fact that he didn’t save Kennedy 30 years ago and John Malkovich as the ice cold would be Presidential assassin.
Eastwood’s Horrigan isn’t exactly a broken man, but he’s definitely one whose tough (and at 62, increasingly leathery) exterior hides a damaged core. Eastwood isn’t an actor known for his vulnerability on screen, but here he’s adept at suggesting how the regrets of the past are driving him to take the threats directed at the President by Malkovich’s character seriously. In one scene, with Rene Russo (playing a fellow secret service agent who also serves as his love interest), Eastwood has an emotional speech in which you can sense the floodgates almost opening, which is as much of a crack as a man like Frank is ever going to allow in his facade.
Eastwood is more the persona we’re used to in his scenes, almost all of them on the phone, with Malkovich’s Mitch Leary. Leary knows Frank’s past and tries to use it not only to make Frank seem more paranoid than he is but to draw him in, to make Horrigan see the two of them, as he does, as mirror images: two men whose destinies are tied inextricably to whether the President lives or dies. Malkovich got an Oscar nomination for his role. He prepared by cutting himself off from the world for a month. Wanting to tap into his character’s sense of isolation he didn’t leave his home, watched no TV other than news, and wouldn’t talk on the phone. Malkovich’s clipped menace is perfect for the part, he can play unhinged with a smile that can turn suddenly and he has, innately, a sense of sophistication. Mitch is highly intelligent and has an intricate plan, you believe that the only reason he might be stopped is the fact that he engages with Frank at all, and that this might be another part of his goal. You buy into the way that Mitch get under Frank’s skin and works his way into the inner circle to pull off his plot because of this innate sophistication and intelligence we see in Malkovich. What’s brilliant is Malkovich’s ability to shift, we also fully buy into his viciousness. In one of the film’s best moments, which he improvised, Malkovich puts his mouth over a gun Eastwood is pointing at him and bites down hard: the target daring the hunter to shoot.
The film is fairly light on action, with just one chase across the rooftops punctuating the film before the final sequence. The real action in the film comes in conversation, in the tension of the phone calls between Frank and Mitch and in the methodical way that each of them begins to close in on their target. Because we know Frank has a profound sense of regret and, to some degree, survivors guilt over the Kennedy assassination, the pursuit takes on something of a doomy feel even as it sweeps us up in the excitement and tension of the chase. The other chase going on in the film: Eastwood doggedly pursuing Rene Russo – 21 years his junior – as Agent Raines, feels both perfunctory and slightly icky these days. This is also true of the sexual politics more generally. Frank dismisses women in the Secret Service as ‘window dressing’ and rather lewdly wonders where Raines is hiding her gun while she’s wearing an evening gown, but I believe those attitudes and that comment from Frank far more than I do their eventual getting together.
The film evades politics. To give an authentic feel, footage was shot at rallies for both George HW Bush and Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaigns, with a surprising amount of digital trickery then employed to insert Eastwood and the other actors into these scenes. The President is only ever referred to by his title or his code name ‘Traveler’, and it is never indicated which party he is from or indeed why Mitch wants to kill him. This gives the film a resonance that is able to travel – you could view it as being about any white male candidate. This could make the film feel a bit middle of the road, like it doesn’t want to deal in political realities, but that’s not the idea here. Mitch Leary’s politics aren’t important, because the film ultimately isn’t about him, it’s about a man trying to close a circle that has been left painfully open for 30 years, even if it kills him. That’s where the film ends up in its striking final confrontation between Frank and Mitch. Both seem resigned to not escaping, but Frank’s “one thing, aim high” tells us that’s no longer what he actively wants, this time for reasons other than stopping Mitch.
Following In The Line of Fire, both Eastwood and director Wolfgang Petersen would go on to direct films released in 1997, prominently featuring a President as a character. Eastwood’s Absolute Power is not one of his better rated efforts, but Petersen’s Air Force One, with a 55 year old Harrison Ford as a President beating up terrorists to hijack his plane, could be said to be a precursor to the whole geri-action trend and, one terrible CGI plane crash aside, it’s held up brilliantly.
I come back to what I said at the start of this piece. In The Line Of Fire is a good, solid thriller. Malkovich and Eastwood play off each other well; cool contempt against chilly anger. Petersen’s direction keeps the story taut for most of the two hours, the ‘romantic’ interludes aside. And yet, there’s little about it that feels urgent now, Eastwood has played similar characters in better films that are more politically interesting in retrospect. It’s a film that, while never less than engaging, feels distinctly of the second rank in a career that spans such a long time that there are plenty of more interesting choices to revisit.