Monday, April 23, 2018
April 23, 2018: Assassination Studying: In the Line of Fire
[On April 26th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was killed after a nearly two-week manhunt following his assassination of Abraham Lincoln. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of different assassinations and their contexts!]
On a scene that humanizes the JFK assassination, and the shortcomings of the film around it.
At the heart of Wolfgang Petersen’s film In the Line of Fire (1993) is one of those unforgettable, quiet, potent Clint Eastwood monologues. Eastwood’s character Frank Horrigan is an aging Secret Service agent who was part of John F. Kennedy’s Dallas detail; the film’s villain, psychopath Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), is threatening to kill the current president, and while so doing taunts Horrigan with his failures during the Kennedy assassination and wonders if Horrigan has or ever had the guts to take a bullet for the president (an overt, and of course the most unique and difficult, part of the job of every Secret Service agent). In that linked monologue, Horrigan opens up to his fellow agent and love interest Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) about his failures on that November day in Dallas and how they have shaped his perspective and identity ever since.
It’s an amazing couple minutes of film, and a nice reminder that Clint Eastwood is more than just an unhinged RNC speaker or over-the-top “Get off my lawn” caricature of a Grumpy Old White Man. But the In the Line of Fire monologue also does important, complex cultural work when it comes to the JFK assassination and the kinds of questions I raised (vis a vis Susan Cheever’s controversial article) in this post. The assassination has long exemplified the “Where were you when you heard the news?” narrative of history, a reflection on just how communally traumatic its horrific events were. And if on the one hand the Secret Service’s failures seem to have done their part to contribute to that trauma, on the other it’s important to note that the trauma might be particularly devastating when the answer to that “Where were you” question is, “I was a few feet away from Kennedy’s car but did nothing to stop his killing.” At the very least, Eastwood’s monologue does what great art so often does: forces us to think about the humanity within history, complicating and enriching our perspective on that shared, national history in the process.
Unfortunately, the rest of Petersen’s film not only fails to live up to that moment of complexity and humanity, but actively undermines the questions it raises. For one thing, Malcovich’s character and the way he drives the film’s plot is just another example of a psychotic, cat-and-mouse blockbuster bad guy, no different from contemporary villains such as Dennis Hopper in Speed (1994) or Tommy Lee Jones in Blown Away (1994) or the like. And for another, more important thing, in order to complement that blockbuster villain, the film turns Eastwood’s agent into precisely the kind of superhero stereotype that the history of the Secret Service reveals to be nonsense; [SPOILER ALERT] in the film’s climax, for example, Horrigan not only proves to Leary, Raines, himself, and everyone else that he is willing and able to take a bullet for the president, but after being gravely wounded continues to chase and eventually overpowers and kills the would-be assassin. This action-movie silliness doesn’t ruin the seriousness of Eastwood’s earlier monologue, necessarily; but it reflects a film that as a whole fails utterly at maintaining that kind of humanity.
Next assassination studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other assassination contexts or connections you’d highlight?