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What has generally set film icon Clint Eastwood apart from so many other former action heroes is how well he embraces his age in the roles he takes, giving each of these characters a mix of vulnerability and wisdom … and earmarks of the times he’s lived in. So it is that when a character he plays meets a fellow female Secret Service Agent in one scene of Wolfgang Peterson‘s critically-acclaimed film, In The Line Of Fire, he comments on her pretty looks and gives her a wink. That’s the dinosaur he is, and it helps to establish not only the mentality but also the arc he will travel.
I mention this early simply to point out just one of many important subtleties in this movie that work well in defining what the movie is really about, and how well the filmmakers work in creating an authentic character. Even back in 1993, a quip like that was outdated, and naturally, that agent, Lilly Raines (Rene Russo), gives it right back and all is balanced again, but we quickly see the gaps between his generation and the one he is working with. That’s an important ingredient of Eastwood films that began in the 90s, who was sixty-two while filming this movie.
The story centers on Frank Horrigan (Eastwood), an agent haunted by his past who finds himself in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a disturbed former CIA operative named Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), who confesses to Horrigan his scheme to kill the President. Drawn into traps, it’s a test of meddle for Frank, facing demons of a decision made thirty years earlier that literally changed history.
The success of the movie boils down to the dynamic relationships, both the one Frank develops with the killer and the one with Raines, which become parallel properties that when mixed together, reshape who Frank is, helping him to find much-needed redemption and belonging. Peterson handles these intimate character moments just as well as he does the action, and because so, makes In The Line Of Fire one of the best in the genre. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Frank investigates a complaint from a landlord about a tenant and discovers a (movie trope-ish) wall with a collage of clippings and articles about famous assignations, most notably, the one on JFK. When he returns the next day with his partner (Dylan McDermott), not realizing he was spotted earlier by the tenant, the wall is stripped bare except for a single image, that of a very young Horrigan running protection alongside Kennedy’s motorcade in Dealey Plaza, moments before the first bullet is fired. Frank’s face in the photograph is circled in red. The killer knows who’s after him and he makes it clear the opposite is true.
The image and the implication trigger Frank to make it a quest in stopping what he now perceives as a legitimate threat against the president, even getting reassigned to protection, something many feel he is too old to do. We steadily realize that while preventing an assassination is paramount for him, the defeat of demons is just as important, if not more so.
Frank begins to mirror Leary’s obsessive behavior, and deeply-affected by the past and his ambitious hunt, makes some radical choices–one is filmed and causes embarrassment for the Secret Service–that eventually have him pulled off the president’s detail, but left in charge of the investigation.
All the while, a tenuous romance is finding some strength between Frank and Lilly, even as she is given the lead of the president’s protection. Recognizing his own mistakes in the current investigation, the two find themselves in Los Angeles, traveling with the president for a campaign dinner. Taken off the detail, Frank is relegated to a peripheral position and in a dimly-lit suite while awaiting the event, Lilly and Frank take a moment to talk.
Frank reflects on that day in Dallas, of his hesitation in not jumping in front of the second bullet, of his disbelief in what was happening and how his inaction has defined who he became. It is shattering moment where the walls crumble and the shadow of a man buried thirty years inside finds some light.
What makes this moment work as well as it does is how well it respects the audience. Peterson understand that in front of his camera is one of the most expressive faces in the business and lets Eastwood tell the story of his character’s past rather than cut to a foggy flashback and play it out, a trick surely many lesser filmmakers might have done.
For most of us, the image of Kennedy’s last minutes are a part of the cultural landscape, a scene reproduced dozens of times in film and television, the harrowing and brutal murder of our president one that still traumatizes even so many decades later. For anyone listening to Frank as he shares his personal experience with that moment–and his failed responsibility in stopping it–we see it in our minds and read it on his face. We don’t need to have it on screen.
Eastwood deserves all the credit though, standing in the window, looking out into a remembered past, he makes it feel like Frank’s story is real, and most importantly, we sympathize. What horrors possess his nightmares and for how long must it be a burden? We catch a few glimpses of Lilly looking up to him, voiceless, nearly breaking, and there is a brilliant silence at the end of the scene when Frank, the pillar of the agency, a man’s man, withering in his own way, turns just a bit aside to let the guilt and ache wash over him. When his lower lip quivers and he looks away, it’s crushing. Lilly reaches for his hand and the camera pulls back.
In The Line Of Fire is for nearly all of its runtime, a fast-paced, psychological thriller that pits two equally-intelligent and obsessed men against each other, both knowing it must end with one of them dead. While it is recognized for its action, it is the stops in the film that make it great, including a confession in a hotel suite where a man bares his pain to a woman with whom he is falling in love. It’s a great cinematic moment.