I’ve always been magnetised by the political assassination movie. Organised crime hit-men and freelance wet-workers are intriguing and frightening enough in their capacity to end lives for the sake of bringing home the bacon and keeping business ticking over, but the folks who truly get under my skin are those who opt to alter the trajectory of society with bullets over the ballot box. The killing of JFK has been contentiously dramatized with the likes of David Miller’s Executive Action and Oliver Stone’s JFK, two films that assert wildly elaborate conspiracy theories that challenge the official findings of the Warren Commission, ensuring a beguiling if batty cinematic experience.
One year before that devastating event saw the release of The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer’s magnum opus that offered a frightening vision of government overthrow via international mind-control conspiracies and unwitting killers. Other essential titles that shine a singular light on the phenomenon of clandestine groups trafficking in political murder include William Richert’s underrated satire Winter Kills, Alan J. Pakula’s infinitely disturbing The Parallax View and Costa-Gavras’ mighty thriller Z. All of these films retain their power to put a bee in the viewer’s bonnet, provoking thought about those among us with a homicidal lack of respect for representative democracy and what nefarious plots they could be cooking up as we speak.
In the Line of Fire, Wolfgang Petersen’s powerful and exciting cat-and-mouse classic that ranks as one of the best movies of the 90s, deals not in shadow governments or deranged idealists, but rather in how the concept of POTUS assassinations in popular culture can tap into something lethal in a disillusioned and psychopathically bitter mind. Rightfully nominated for several awards but sadly going home with no gold, it remains a resolutely acted, dark and cerebral piece about obsession, regret and redemption.
Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is a Secret Service agent who, to try putting it politely, is a little long in the tooth. Currently chasing around counterfeiters with his younger and highly-strung partner Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott), Frank spends his downtime reflecting in his apartment or melancholically playing the piano at a local bar. Thirty years ago, Frank was part of JFK’S security detail during the Dallas motorcade and failed to shield the president from the fatal bullet, resulting in guilt-fuelled alcoholism that led to his wife and children leaving him. Despite this sad life story, he retains pride in his work and a taciturn charisma that draws respect from his colleagues.
Alone at home one night, Frank picks up the phone to a disquieting and overfamiliar voice belonging to an individual who proclaims himself a ‘fan’ of Mr Horrigan, conveying an unsettling excitement at the fact that he is finally talking to the man himself and probing Frank with questions about his life. When Frank suggests that they meet up for a beer and a chat, the mystery caller declines the offer in favour of positing his true intentions: he is planning to assassinate the current president, and would love nothing more than for Frank to try to stop him. The POTUS is about to begin a nationwide re-election tour, and if Frank can get himself on the protection detail he might be able to ‘make amends’ for the events of 1963.
As Horrigan begins to develop an uneasy relationship with fellow agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo), he continues to be plagued by phone calls from the stranger, the man’s emotionally sadistic remarks about Frank’s life bizarrely followed by cryptic clues and the addressing of Frank as his ”friend”. As Frank and his team keep a hawk-eye at the president’s public appearances and liaise with intelligence services, details are unearthed about the identity and background of Frank’s disturbing new nemesis (John Malkovich), Horrigan and co. increasingly convinced that they aren’t tangling with some weird and spiteful windbag but an extremely dangerous and capable predator who will follow through on his promise. Can Frank find the evil assassin and keep the most powerful man on Earth breathing, or will he merely retread the nightmare that destroyed his life all of those years ago?
The principal strength of In the Line of Fire lies in the brilliantly executed toxic dalliance between Eastwood and Malkovich. Ebert put it splendidly when he mentioned that in the days of stunt-and-action predicated thrillers, it was refreshing to watch one that possessed a mind. Driven largely by their faceless verbal sparring, the film presents Malkovich’s character as something akin to a shadowy horror villain, his presence often supplemented by dim lighting and ominous scoring as he breathes malice down the telephone. The fact that he is an impeccable master of both disguise and evasion only makes him tenfold more horrifying, underpinning the seriously high stakes of the mess Horrigan finds himself in. I could mention our antagonist’s name or some of his background details, but the picture is far more engaging if you allow yourself to follow its trail cold. Eastwood imbues the film with his standard gruff-yet-amiable rendering of a man with a dark past, but that is certainly not a criticism. He inhabits the character of Frank excellently, utilising his underrated talent for facial and vocal emotiveness to bring a living and breathing immersiveness to a flawed good guy who never gave up despite the many times life kicked him down.
The score by Ennio Morricone is a thoughtfully calculated arrangement that evokes the mystique and reverence of the presidential office and those who serve it, rousing trumpets and strings slowing down in tempo to persuasively generate pathos for Horrigan’s tribulations. It contrasts this with sudden sharpness when Malkovich is in the frame, not unlike Morricone’s eerie soundscapes for Frank Nitti in De Palma’s The Untouchables. John Bailey’s cinematography has a crisp and solid quality that emphasises the characters and their motivations, juxtaposing creepy villainy with classy and compelling scenes of emotional reveal between Eastwood, McDermott and Russo. The romantic subplot involving Eastwood & Russo has authentic playfulness and poignancy and never overtakes the narrative objective, making it a welcome facet of Frank’s humanisation as opposed to a cynically tacked-on detail.
With a suspenseful, mature and intelligent screenplay that deftly causes one to feel for all of its characters, In the Line of Fire features Eastwood at his utmost best and Malkovich in career-defining awesomeness, both principals being given steady support by the rest of the cast. It’s a prime example of a film that takes age-old tropes and does something invigorating and truly cinematic with them, holding up effortlessly even now. If you enjoy diligent nail-biters that broadly tap into your emotional spectrum and don’t insult your intelligence, this would be my primary recommendation.