Most of these early morning movies will be films I’ve never seen before. But every now and then there’s a film I need to rewatch for something I’m working on, and one of these is Wolfgang Petersen’s In The Line Of Fire. It’s more than 20 years old now, but it still feels fresh and snappy, and the relationship between Clint Eastwood’s ageing Secret Service agent and John Malkovich’s wannabe Presidential assassin is a reminder of how important a good villain is: as Hitchcock used to say, the stronger the villain the stronger the movie.
The other key relationship, between Clint Eastwood’s character Frank Horrigan and fellow agent Rene Russo, is also lightly but tenderly drawn: they have a sparky, combative chemistry that lights up the movie. Russo had a good run in the 90s, playing smart, confident (if slightly interchangeable, but that’s more the writers’ fault than hers) grown-up women in films including Tin Cup, Outbreak, Get Shorty and The Thomas Crown Affair. Looking at her IMDB it seems that Hollywood couldn’t forgive her for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle in 2000, because after that she made a series of pretty bad (if star-studded) films: bad enough, indeed, to drop out of movies altogether for six years until she reappeared as Frigga (yes really), the mother of Thor. Is her role here a older man’s wish fulfilment fantasy? Yes. Does it feel creepy? No, not really, because Russo’s character, Agent Raines, is brave and clever and funny and clearly under no illusion about the potential drawbacks of such a relationship; after all, Eastwood spends a third of the movie with a dripping nose. She’s also never objectified by the movie; she is, at every point, her character, not just something pretty to look at, and she’s never placed in danger just to raise the stakes; and if those seem like a pretty low bar to set, well, just try watching most mainstream modern thrillers and you’ll see what a quiet triumph this is.
Something struck me this time, though, that never had done before, and it’s an odd logic drop in the story. The whole movie is essentially a game between Mitch (Malkovich) — the man who wants to kill the President — and Frank (Eastwood) — the man who failed to save the President when he was working on JFK’s team. Mitch seems obsessed with Frank, and the fatal moment in Dallas when he failed to take a bullet; he calls him endlessly to discuss it, and to play on Frank’s lingering guilt. But the fact that it’s Frank who’s investigating is entirely coincidental: the call that first leads Frank to Mitch’s apartment could have gone to anyone in a Secret Service of two thousand people. He just happens to be the guy in the area at the time. So my question is this: is this a screenwriting failure? Would the movie work better if Mitch had deliberately targeted Frank? Or would that actually weaken the movie, because it would give Mitch a divided goal i.e. to kill the President while also destroying Frank’s soul? The way it’s presented in the film suggests that the film-makers couldn’t quite decide, so they chose to fudge it a little: Frank goes to Mitch’s apartment by coincidence, but Mitch is watching the windows, and recognises Frank immediately, triggering the cat-and-mouse game that then runs through the film.
There’s so much that’s good about the movie that I don’t really want to unpick it — to be honest, Mitch’s whole drive to kill the President is never really explained — and it never bothered me before. But I wonder if it’s too much of a coincidence that the one man who’s put on the case is the perfect man for Mitch: the man with a need for redemption, who was there on that sunny Dallas day.