'Under Fire': provocative look at what happens when a journalist loses neutrality

Under Fire has become the most controversial movie of the day. To some, it's a thoughtful study of journalism and professional ethics in a harrowingly relevant Latin American setting. To others, it's a slanted effort to ''sell'' leftist politics while undermining the reputation of United States news reporters.

To me, it's the most provocative and involving Hollywood picture in quite a while. Some will object to its occasional violence and vulgarity: It is violent enough in its action, and rude enough in its language, to fully warrant its R rating. Its politics are outspoken, but there's nothing sneaky about them - they're right out in the open - to be accepted or rejected as each viewer sees fit. As for its skeptical view of journalistic ''objectivity,'' the issues raised are worthy of thought, however one feels about the movie's conclusions.

Nick Nolte plays a roving journalist in Nicaragua near the end of the Somoza regime. At a pivotal moment in the anti-Somoza rebellion, the insurgents ask him to help their cause by faking a key piece of information. With support from a colleague, played by Joanna Cassidy, he breaks the reportorial rules by giving up his neutrality. He must then deal with the consequences of his act and face another colleague (played by Gene Hackman) who would surely disapprove if the secret came out.

Beneath the story's political details, and the Hollywood-style love triangle that intrudes on them, ''Under Fire'' is a probing look at what it means to take sides. The picture is crammed with characters who reveal their natures by the loyalties they choose: a mercenary soldier whose motive is money; a public-relations man who cares only about appearances; a French spy (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who gravitates toward power; and the protagonists themselves. While the 1979 war in Nicaragua provides a highly charged setting, personality dynamics are closer to the movie's core than ideologies are. In essence, this is a character study, albeit a turbulent one.

Credit for the depth of ''Under Fire'' goes to writers Ron Shelton and Clayton Frohman, to director Roger Spottiswoode, and to the skilled cast - especially Hackman, who makes a difficult secondary role shine with emotional nuance. It's also refreshing to find a major woman character holding her own in all respects alongside the menfolk.

''Under Fire'' is not a gentle experience. But it offers more to think about than any other new Hollywood picture.

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