Under Fire opens in Chad where Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman), a senior correspondent, Claire Stryder (Joanna Cassidy), his lover and a radio correspondent, and Russel Price (Nick Nolte), a photojournalist, are covering the civil war. The three decide to go to Nicaragua where the Somoza government is under siege from revolutionary Sandinista forces. As Alex quips, "I've heard it's a neat little war with a nice hotel."
In the capital city of Managua, Russel asks a Nicaraguan woman who has been describing Rafael, the leader of the rebels, "Is he owned by the CIA or the KGB?" The woman responds: "Mr. Price, the world is not divided into East and West anymore. It's divided into North and South."
Claire abandons her relationship with Alex and starts an affair with Russel. Unlike Alex, who is contemplating a career move, Russel is very intrigued by the diverse individuals in Managua at the time: Jazy (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a French businessman who is really a CIA operative; Oates (Ed Harris), an American mercenary who has just completed a dirty assignment in Chad; and Hub Kittle (Richard Masur), a New York advertising man who is working as Somoza's PR agent.
Hustled off to prison by the police as a reminder of who's in power, Russel is put into a cell with a Nicaraguan priest. The photojournalist can't fiure out why he's been jailed since he has not taken sides. "No sides?" questions the priest, who then advises, "Go home."
Roger Spottiswoode directs Under Fire with a keen eye on the political tensions in Nicaragua and the violence perpetrated by Somoza's lackeys and the rebels. The literate screenplay by Ron Shelton and Clayton Frohman presents a fascinating look at this convulsed country where simple answers are proffered by the dictator, the revolutionaries, the CIA operative, the mercenary and other opportunists in the film.
When Russel and Claire are given a chance to photograph Rafael, they are excited by the prospect of an exclusive. However, when they arrive at the rebels' headquarters, they learn that Rafael is dead. The rebels want Russel to take a phony photograph of Rafael at his desk to boost morale among his followers and to stop the United States government from making a new arms shipment to Somoza. After much soul-searching concerning his professional commitment to objectivity, Russel makes a decision that sets in motion a terrifying series of events with dire consequences for his friend Alex.
Under Fire offers the best screen portrait of journalists since All the President's Men. Although the screenplay does take a political position, viewers are challenged to work out their own response to the volatile and violent circumstances of ideological conflict in Nicaragua. One of the film's surprises is Nick Nolte's intense and nuanced performance as Russel Price. It is the best of his career and one that gives Under Fire its solid emotional center.