Clint Eastwood is long old. We might feel a little guilty for saying so, except that Eastwood has made the specter of old age and frailty a central part of his screen persona, now spanning three decades. Better than any other action hero in movie history, he managed to transition from the role of deadly cool badass to an aging, angry, but still deadly and cool old badass. One of the best examples of this is 1993’s In the Line of Fire, in which Clint Eastwood plays veteran Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan. The film was a huge blockbuster at the box office, nominated for several Oscars and pioneered its use of digital special effects. It’s also almost forgotten by audiences and is currently streaming on Netflix.
In the line of fire begins with a slow montage of Washington DC landmarks, from the Capitol Building to the Washington Monument to a lingerie close-up shot of the White House, while legendary composer Ennio Morricone’s martial score is played. It’s a fitting start for a film so focused on a man obsessed with his own service to his country. Clint Eastwood is introduced when he is picked up by his Secret Service agent, Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott); After giving him a list of excuses for being late, the younger agent simply tells him not to do it again, in a very classically stoic and grim Clint Eastwood manner.
Dylan McDermott ends up tied to a chair in a houseboat while Clint Eastwood pulls the trigger of an unloaded gun to his head to prove his allegiance to some counterfeiters (surprisingly, destroying counterfeiters is actually part of the Secret Service’s job). Eastwood guns her down, then pensively plays the piano in a bar. It’s a masterfully quick trade from director Wolfgang Petersen to demonstrate the complexity of his character. Like many of Eastwood’s characters of the period, there is a deep note of regret in his portrayal, tempered by light, wry humor. That’s even before it’s known that Clint Eastwood was one of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect President John F. Kennedy during his assassination in Dallas, with his failure to do so becoming a burden on his conscience that every element of his has ruined personal life.
The plot of In the line of fire begins in earnest when Clint Eastwood receives a call from a mysterious man (John Malkovich) who identifies himself as “Booth” (as in John Wilkes Booth) and tells him that he plans to assassinate the current President. The film becomes a game of cat and mouse between Eastwood and Malkovich, where the mouse always seems to be three steps ahead of an aging and out of breath cat.
And that’s a huge part of what makes Clint Eastwood so remarkable as a hero in a suspenseful action thriller like this film. He makes no attempt to hide his age (he was 63 at the time), gets winded trying to keep up with the President’s slow motorcade, and can’t hope to keep up with Malkovich in a chase. At some point he gets the flu because he’s standing in the rain on duty and completely ruins an assignment because of it. The key to Clint Eastwood’s longevity as a movie star isn’t trying to stay young and invincible, but instead embracing his age and diminishing his physical presence. Of course, he ends up in bed with Rene Russo (twenty-four years his junior, for the record), but that’s Hollywood for you.
In the line of fire is a dark and cynical film in which the shadow of JFK’s assassination hangs over everything. John Malkovich is revealed to be a former CIA assassin who has collapsed under pressure and is now intent on assassinating on historic proportions; It was one of the actor’s first roles as an outspoken villain, and he handles the creepiness with aplomb. A scene where he graphically breaks the next woman who is too interested in him along with her roommate and then nonchalantly walks away from her barking dog is truly disturbing. Also, in another, smaller film, it might turn out that somehow Clint Eastwood wasn’t to blame for JFK’s death, but In the line of fire never give in to it. Instead, this is a world where politicians are assassinated, the US government trains ruthless killers, and sometimes regrets staying with one person at all times.
In the line of fire was Clint Eastwood’s immediate sequel to his Oscar-winning western unforgiven, which is widely perceived as the elegiac pinnacle of the genre. Amazingly, his next film did not disappoint, grossing $187 million at the box office and being nominated for three Academy Awards. It also used new digital technology to insert a younger version of Eastwood (no less than Dirty Harry) into footage shot by JFK a year earlier Forrest Gump broke America’s collective mind by performing the same trick. In the line of fire maybe not remembered as well as Forrest Gump or unforgivenbut it’s a terrifyingly good and well-crafted thriller that’s worth loading up on Netflix for.