In the Line of Fire

(Wolfgang Petersen, USA, 1993)


In the Line of Fire is one of those extremely frustrating movies that, all the way through, tantalises the viewer with the promise that it is about to explore some very murky depths and go all the way with a very powerful and suggestive premise. Then suddenly a neat ending arrives and the whole structure evaporates into thin air.

This Clint Eastwood vehicle, directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, 1981) and written by Jeff Maguire, draws on the great modern tradition of the paranoid political thriller, from The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to JFK (1991). Frank Horrigan (Eastwood) is a security cop who, thirty years previously, was unable to save John F. Kennedy from the assassin's bullet. Now a sinister voice on the end of a phone line, promising to kill the current President, plunges Frank back into the mire of this personal and historical trauma.

The voice belongs to Mitch (John Malkovich in a knockout performance). He is a mad genius in the mould of Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – a brilliant engineer, inventor, disguise artist and Nietzschean philosopher all at once. Why does he want to kill the President and torment Frank? "To punctuate the dreariness" – which is, all things considered, not such a bad reason.

In the Line of Fire flirts with the ambiguities common to this kind of story – hints that Mitch is a monster bred by the system itself, or that Frank and Mitch are ultimately symbiotic figures. It also tries to milk pathos from Frank's rapidly approaching old age, and to make him something of a reluctant New Age hero coming to terms with an independent, feminist colleague (Rene Russo).

On all these thematic levels, however, the film ultimately aims for a studiously contrived brand of reassurance – its end credits even thank the United States Secret Service! This is, sadly, a long way from the subversive, disturbing thrills once offered by paranoid parables like William Richert's Winter Kills (1979).

MORE Petersen: Air Force One, The Perfect Storm

© Adrian Martin May 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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