In the Line of Fire: Fighting Kennedy’s Ghost

AN ASSASSIN ON THE LOOSE. A PRESIDENT IN DANGER. ONLY ONE MAN STANDS BETWEEN THEM.

inthelineoffireThe original trailer for this film was an exercise in poor taste and preview audiences reacted harshly against it. It had the date “November 22, 1963” written in large letters, followed by John Malkovich’s character talking about killing the president. A clock was ticking in the background, changing “1963” to “1993” – cut to Clint Eastwood’s character saying “That’s not going to happen”. The tackiness of the trailer hid the fact that this is an intelligent, exciting and sensitive film about an old man’s last chance to leave with dignity.

Frank Horrigan (Eastwood) is an aging Secret Service agent who establishes a connection with a man called Booth (Malkovich) who meets every profile of someone preparing to kill the president. Booth tells Frank that he likes the agent’s panache, but it also soon becomes obvious that he’s fascinated by the fact that Frank didn’t react swiftly enough on the day when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, even though Frank was just inches from him. That experience is still haunting Frank, but the Secret Service realizes that because of the connection between Frank and Booth it is useful to keep the old agent around.

As the investigation continues, Booth turns out to be a former CIA agent, Mitch Leary, who’s turned psychotic… and Frank becomes infatuated with a fellow agent, Lilly Raines (Rene Russo).

Full of tense moments
In some ways, this is a companion piece to Unforgiven, the western Eastwood made the year before, which dealt with similar themes. Both films have an aging star prepared to show the downsides to growing older; some of the story’s action-filled parts has the protagonist struggling to keep up with the challenges of a job that he used to handle with little effort just a few (or was it ten, twenty?) years ago. But Eastwood also makes it clear that without the experience of men and women over 60 society wouldn’t function properly; even the insane killer has enough sense to be in awe of the elderly agent and what he learned from 1963.

Large parts of the story are formulaic (and even hard to believe), but Wolfgang Petersen is a very skilled director who knows how to milk as much tension out of a thriller as possible; along with Das Boot (1981) this is his finest effort. The movie is full of tense moments, John Bailey’s cinematography has beautiful views of Washington D.C., Jeff Maguire’s script is cleverly structured in admittedly predictable but effective fashion, and the cast is top-notch. Eastwood delivers a perfect performance as an operative who’s just as tough as Dirty Harry once was but also ready to show a vulnerable side to a lady he likes; Russo’s character is reminiscent of the one she played in Lethal Weapon 3 the previous year, and it’s a part she knows well.

As for Malkovich, I’m torn. He’s a brilliant actor who makes this lunatic figure memorable, but he’s also constantly verging on turning him into an overblown clown. Still, who can resist his performance in that scene where he rescues Frank from falling to his death?

The Bodyguard attracted big audiences the previous year. The whole notion of somebody being prepared to sacrifice his life for someone who’s not a loved one is fascinating. Part of that in this story is our hero’s desire to vindicate his reputation and erase a record he’s ashamed of. Watching Frank’s bottom lip tremble as he talks to Lilly about it is an emotional moment that gives the film more depth that it probably aspired to initially.

In the Line of Fire 1993-U.S. 128 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Jeff Apple. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Screenplay: Jeff Maguire. Cinematography: John Bailey. Cast: Clint Eastwood (Frank Horrigan), John Malkovich (Mitch Leary), Rene Russo (Lilly Raines), Dylan McDermott, Gary Cole, Fred Dalton Thompson… John Mahoney, John Heard.

Trivia: Digitally manipulated footage from George Bush and Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaigns is used in some scenes. Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson were allegedly considered for the part of Leary; Robert Redford and Sean Connery for the part of Horrigan.

Last word: “So Clint just got on the phone and said, ‘Let me call Jack [Nicholson, for the part of the villain]. And in a couple of seconds he says, ‘Hi Jack, it’s Clint.’ And I’m sitting there thinking, a couple of weeks ago I was talking to Andy from Chase Manhattan, and now I’m listening to Jack talk to Clint.” (Maguire, in 1993, The New York Times)

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