In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
In the Line of Fire feels increasingly like a cultural artefact in this day and age.
Though in some ways rooted in the 1990s, in an era divested of the Cold War but away from a future of terrorist uncertainty, there is a political timelessness about Wolfgang Petersen’s movie. It feels at though it exists between two worlds. Barring one exception, this was the last film starring Clint Eastwood in the title role that he didn’t direct and you perhaps feel at times Eastwood wants to jump out of In the Line of Fire and establish his own political sentiments on Jeff Maguire’s script and Petersen’s effective, if at times pedestrian direction.
Eastwood has at times asserted his fairly right-wing political leanings on his filmmaking, most notably in American Sniper, but In the Line of Fire remains essentially neutral in terms of political discourse. The President under threat is never even characterised, beyond the traditional American image of a white, middle-aged man. He could be Reagan. He could be Carter. He could even be Clinton, who was in office at the time. Petersen’s film isn’t concerned with the man Eastwood’s ageing Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan is determined to protect, simply about what protecting a President means.
The film is concerned primarily with age in terms of Frank and indeed America itself. The shadow of John F. Kennedy’s assassination hovers over the picture, given how Frank is, as he modestly describes himself at one point to René Russo’s junior agent, a “living legend”; the only remaining serving agent who was in Dealey Plaza on the day of the President’s assassination in November 1963.
Thirty years after the most powerful event in modern American history, In the Line of Fire focuses on a character who has never been able to escape it. Frank, in many respects, is analogous to America as an entity.
Kennedy’s murder irrevocably changed the course of American history for the rest of the 20th century and the ripples are still felt even today, from how it proliferated a multitude of conspiracy theories in popular culture and birthed, alongside the tragedy of Vietnam and the impeachment of Kennedy’s future successor Richard Nixon, an endemic distrust of government by the American people. America has never entirely been the same since Kennedy was killed, since the leader of their nation was gunned down in cold blood publicly and on television. The country, much like Frank, has never fully healed. Petersen’s film attempts to begin that healing process, that closure, through a character arc which forces Frank to face a repetitious threat in a modern context.
Modern, of course, in the prism of the 1990s. This was the decade which saw American society begin to, anxiously, worry about its own history in cinema, television and broader popular culture. Oliver Stone’s JFK blew open the entire Kennedy saga for a new generation, confronting the very real possibility the President could well have been assassinated by a conspiracy within his own government and intelligence agencies; The X-Files, which launched the same year as In the Line of Fire was released, hit the zeitgeist jackpot of an American people ready to consider, if not quantitively believe, the shadow of Watergate and the darkness of American politics and society since 1963 had not been destroyed by the colourful kaleidoscope of the 1980s and the Reagan era.
Yet we don’t see that same level of paranoia in In the Line of Fire. Petersen seems intentionally to steer the picture away from exploring the hangover of Kennedy’s death, instead propagating an idea millions of people had long since started to disbelieve – that of the lone gunman. Eastwood’s foil, in his breakout role, is John Malkovich as Leary (in a role originally earmarked for Robert de Niro), who plays, in typical movie fashion, a cat & mouse game with the long in the tooth agent, goading and taunting him with claims he will kill the President, and repeat the cycle which happened thirty years earlier. Leary introduces himself, indeed, as ‘Booth’, alluding to the original lone gunman John Wilkes Booth, who a century before Kennedy killed another popular, progressive President, Abraham Lincoln.
Leary sees himself in those terms and wants to enter history within that pantheon.
In the Line of Fire, therefore, believes in the ‘lone gunman’ theory.
You sense Eastwood does too, as Frank has little time for the conspiracy theory ideas and is much more focused on preventing history repeating itself. In completing his character arc, from tired, regretful agent to the man who stops this generation’s Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald, Frank equally represents a wish fulfilment of saving America. In the Line of Fire may lack the paranoia, but it keenly feels the anxiety; you sense it considers Frank as a symbol of strong American values protecting his country from the outsider, the external, vengeful force who scornfully wants to destroy the land of the free. It’s why Leary is a former assassin; he represents a dark past American culture wants to erase, destroy, and Eastwood here successfully manages to do just that before the country can be wounded once again.
If the film therefore reflects an ageing America tired of its own regurgitating history, perhaps what attracted Eastwood to the role was a similar questioning of his own career and place within Hollywood. Sixty two years old when In the Line of Fire was filmed, Eastwood was edging steadily out of middle-age after building his entire career on virile, gravel-voiced, all-American alpha male roles in pictures such as the Dollars trilogy for Sergio Leone, the Dirty Harry movies, not to mention a brace of Westerns and roles in rough, masculine films such as Escape From Alcatraz. For years, you couldn’t find a tougher expression of chiselled American manliness.
In the Line of Fire sees Eastwood, gamely, questioning his place in a world festooned with action stars built of muscles and quips, as age catches up with him. Frank is out of breath running alongside a Presidential limo, needs Dylan McDermott’s junior partner to aid him on surviving a rooftop chase, and generally across the film describes himself, or is described, as a dinosaur. Eastwood is wondering what role he now fills in a changing Hollywood more concerned with blockbuster theatrics and metaphorical supermen on screen than men with no name. His one paean to his roles of old is the questionable romance with Russo’s Lilly, a quarter of a century younger than him, young enough to be his daughter. The film does question the age gap but, in the end, much like Catherine Zeta-Jones’ improbable attraction to a nearly seventy year old Sean Connery in Entrapment later in the decade, Russo feels passion for Eastwood.
It’s a romance that creaks as much as Frank’s ageing limbs.
The dynamic doesn’t quite wash away a certain layer of sexism the picture can’t help but imbue or reflect on the role of female agents in the Secret Service. Lilly doesn’t have a great deal of agency and often takes certain sexist comments or questions about how many women exist in the Service with far too much bonhomie than perhaps she should, both Russo and the character. If anything dates Petersen’s film, its this level of retrograde lack of equality and the suggestion Russo needs a level of protection from Eastwood, a bulwark of masculinity even despite on the verge of being put out to pasture. It just never rings true, especially given how Russo is an actress with enough sass and smarts to competently hold her own against any opposite of the sexes.
What’s interesting to note is how In the Line of Fire, in recent years, is supposedly getting a television-based remake. This news broke in 2015 but little has been heard about it since. There could be a myriad of factors for this but you have to wonder if the Presidential situation we find ourselves in, post-Barack Obama, could be a deciding factor. Frankly, how in the age of Donald Trump in the White House, could you convincingly tell a story like this about protecting American society, culture and values, by saving the life of a President like him? You wonder, indeed, just what Eastwood thinks of Trump and his era, given his own clear right-wing leanings visible in his filmmaking.
Regardless, could you make In the Line of Fire with that same sense of earnestness now as Wolfgang Petersen did twenty-five years ago? That was an age where American culture and consciousness needed to look back, needed to reflect on the sins of its forefathers, question quite where it all went wrong. Was it the assassination of Kennedy? Were the days before that, having defeated fascism, won a World War, and helped initiate the capitalist boom of the 1950s and early 1960s, a halcyon dream? Or had America been deluded, all that time, into believing the shocking, violent death of a President was the beginning of the derailment of that fantasy?
The question is – are we not asking these questions once again? If the political age of Trump has proven anything, it’s that cultural distrust, fear and open resistance against government and the proliferation of right-wing thinking is once again on the rise. Perhaps there is a place still for a film like In the Line of Fire. I’m just not sure we have a Clint Eastwood anymore to save America from itself.