An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: In the Line of Fire (1993)
PUBLISHED: 06:45 14 July 2018
Films with re-watch value, movies with a unique quality, will become the classics of the future. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
In the Line of Fire; dir: Wolfgang Petersen; starring: Clint Eastwood, Rene Russo, John Malkovich. Cert: 15 (1993)
Clint Eastwood remains one of the giants of cinema because every performance just oozes integrity. Even as Eastwood aged, we, as an audience, got the sense that here was a man that refuses to compromise on the things that mattered. Rather like John Wayne you imagined that Eastwood spent his career playing a heightened version of himself.
Over the space of 50 years we got the sense that Clint Eastwood, both on and off screen, was a man of few words but those that he did utter were very important.
In the political thriller, In The Line of Fire, directed by Das Boot film-maker Wolfgang Petersen, Clint Eastwood plays Frank Horrigan, a Secret Service agent who is haunted by his past. He is a member of an elite squad of agents charged with protecting the President of the United States. He was on duty the day that JFK visited Dallas and he still cannot forgive his shortcomings which allowed Kennedy to be assassinated.
The first thing that grabs your attention – and the most refreshing to be honest – is the fact that this is the first movie where Clint Eastwood plays his age. Although, this is a tense psychological thriller, Eastwood and Petersen allow themselves the time to poke fun at Eastwood’s advancing years.
He’s shown to be out-of-breath while running alongside the President’s motorcade and for a while he is made to look as if his time has passed. He is seen as a bit of dinosaur by some of his younger associates and when a female Secret Service agent Lily Raines, played with sharp-timing by Rene Russo, joins the Presidential protection squad, a few misjudged sexist quips seem to have him on his way to his retirement party.
But, experience does count for something and Frank Horrigan is not the misogynist pig that he appears. The President is running for re-election, he’s touring the country, glad-handing the party faithful, meeting the public and seducing the people with deep pockets so they will fund his campaign.
While he is so visible, a mysterious figure wants to make a name for himself by killing the President and he wants to exploit Horrigan and his nightmares to do it. He plays mind-games with Horrigan during late night phone calls and gets the aging secret service agent jumpy, prompting him to sound false alarms, so further reducing his credibility in the eyes of his colleagues.
However, the one person who stands by him and appreciates his instincts is Lily Raines. Unlike many films of this type, she is not interested in him romantically, but she enjoys being his partner protecting the President.
It seems that Mitch Leary, as the mysterious assassin calls himself, is a clever, master of disguise and enjoys playing a complicated game of cat and mouse with Horrigan and Lily.
After Horrigan sounds a couple of false alarms, he’s taken off the White House detail, and has to rely on Lily to keep him up to date on the President’s movements and security arrangement while he tries to unmask the real Mitch Leary.
Wolfgang Petersen keeps the plot moving at a cracking pace, while still maintaining a wonderful degree of tension. As an audience you fed with tiny crumbs of evidence at the same time as Horrigan which means you are kept guessing right up until the last minute.
His real achievement as a film-maker is to create time for character-development during what is already atmospheric, incident-packed film. We see Frank and Lily slowly bond over this complex and twisted case.
It’s not a traditional romance but it is a superior-kind of buddy movie. This is a movie primarily-focussed on solving a case and laying to rest ghosts of the past.
The performances of all three leads are superb and no-one relies on cliché or caricature to keep the plot moving. These are three-dimensional characters and it is because you care about them is why the film is as effective as it is.
Eastwood and Russo unsurprisingly have the bulk of the screentime but Malkovich is never far from our thoughts. Mysterious Mitch is a huge, inescapable presence in the film. Malkovich relishes the opportunity to make him as creepy as possible and yet we still do understand what drives him. Wolfgang Petersen proved with Das Boot that he is a film-maker of real skill and this proves that he is equally talented in the thriller sphere.
He adds depth to the situation by allowing character to drive the plot and his flashbacks to the 1963 Kennedy years are brilliant. Dropping young Eastwood into the Dallas footage is a wonderfully convincing.
The film has a tough but satisfying conclusion but by the end we are ready for it. Like all good films In The Line of Fire works on many levels. It’s a first class thriller but it’s also a compelling examination of aging and the value of experience in the work place.