IN THE LINE OF FIRE and In the Shadow of the JFK Assassination

November 6, 2023 - 10:59am
Posted by Jim Healy


The following notes on In the Line of Fire were written by Garrett Strpko, PhD student in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of In the Line of Fire screens on Sunday, November 13 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art, part of our "Cinema in the Shadow of the JFK Assassination" series. The Chazen is located at 750 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By Garrett Strpko

In a particularly poignant moment before the climax of Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire (1993), Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) reflects on his failure to save President Kennedy in November 1963. “You know,” he says, “for years now I've listened to all these idiots on barstools, with their pet theories on Dallas—how it was the Cubans, or the CIA, or the white supremacists, or the Mob; whether there was one weapon, or whether there was five.” Perhaps surprisingly, he confesses, “None of that's meant too much to me.”  What haunts Eastwood’s character is not the who or the why of the Kennedy assassination. It is simply that he failed to stop it, to fulfill his duty and put his life on the line for the sake of the President.

This theme of duty and self-sacrifice which forms the heart of the film is also what separates it from the others featured in our Cinema in the Shadow of the JFK Assassination program. In the Line of Fire offers no conspiracy theories or shadow organizations, it mentions little of lost national futures or the need for transparent governance. When taunted over the phone about his failure to prevent JFK’s killing, Frank replies “What’s done is done.” The assassination is not a mystery to be solved, but a failure to be dutifully atoned for.

In keeping with this emphasis on duty, the film does remarkably little to mystify or elevate the presidency or the President (Jim Curley), who remains conspicuously unnamed and is barely seen or heard in any detail, ironically remaining something of a background figure. Unlike the assassinated senators of The Parallax View (1974) or President Marshall (Harrison Ford) in Petersen’s later Air Force One (1997), we are never given any indication that he uniquely challenges the status quo by standing independently of the two parties as a representative of ‘the People.’ The most we know of him comes through heated meetings with his Chief of Staff Harry Sargent (Fred Thompson), who continually insists against Secret Service safety recommendations on the grounds that they would interfere with the president’s chances for reelection. If anything, the president comes across as shallow and uninterested in the “Big Issues”. For Frank, at least, the president is not necessarily worth protecting because of what he represents, but because it’s his job, no matter who is filling the role.

If duty is the name of the game, Eastwood is the man for the job. On the one hand, the film does have much in common with political action thrillers of the 1990s: rogue disavowed agents seeking revenge, frustrating miscommunication between intelligence branches, rooftop chases and daring disguises. Yet fans of Eastwood will notice right away how heavily the film and Frank’s character build upon the Dirty Harry mythos. Like Eastwood’s Inspector Callahan, Frank is foul-mouthed, misogynistic, quick to pull the trigger, and most importantly, willing to take the heat from his know-nothing superiors if it means fulfilling his duty his way. The opening of In the Line of Fire even plays like that of a Dirty Harry movie. Frank, paired with a new and younger partner, Al (played excellently by Dylan McDermott), goes undercover to expose a fraudulent currency ring. When Al is discovered and tied up by the leader and his two thugs for being a Secret Service agent, Frank attempts to arrest them at gunpoint before dispatching them with his signature magnum revolver. Yet, if Eastwood brings the gravitas, ethos, and mannerisms of Harry Callahan to the role of Frank Horrigan, he also brings a compelling sense of being haunted just beneath the surface, which uniquely defines the character.

The specter of the JFK assassination is first raised by Mitch Leary, played, in a career-defining and academy award-nominated performance, by John Malkovich. An ex-CIA “wet boy” (read: assassin), Leary vows to kill the president for reasons that are never made fully clear. At times, he claims to be seeking revenge against the government that turned him into the psychopathic killer he is. Yet to Frank, he confides that it may have more to do with a nihilistic or existential desire: “to punctuate the dreariness.” Whatever his reason, Leary develops an obsession with Frank. Many of the film’s most compelling scenes are the phone calls Leary places to Frank to taunt and challenge him. “The game,” as Leary calls it, is just as much about him and Frank as it is about fulfilling his goal of assassination. Our introduction to Leary is methodical and piecemeal. As Vincent Canby put it in his review of the film, “First he's a voice on the telephone, then an eye, a nose, a face seen in a pore-tight close-up. When finally seen in full figure, he appears to be both maniacal and utterly ordinary.”

Working alongside Frank to protect the president and track down Leary is Agent Lilly Rains (Rene Russo). Despite Frank’s frequent misogynistic comments (he refers to her early on as ‘window dressing’), Lilly proves essential to the investigation of Leary and protection of the president. However improbably, the two even develop a romantic relationship which (although offensive to modern sensibilities) is nevertheless a source of much of the film’s humor and more emotionally salient moments. Lilly forms a bulwark against the seeds of self-doubt planted in Frank by Leary. She also sets Frank straight when those seeds of doubt interfere with his sense of duty, which she reminds him is not just to protect the president’s life, but his dignity.

In this pivotal scene, which comes after Frank creates a false alarm during a presidential speech and is subsequently fired from the security detail, we get one of the few moments which suggests a deeper significance of the Kennedy assassination. Remembering an incident in which he lost a month’s pay to protect Kennedy’s dignity, Frank reflects, “He was different… I was different. The whole damn country was different. Everything would be different right now too if I’d been half as paranoid as I am today!” As haunted as Frank and the film are by the assassination, it also continually suggests that the lost futures it represents pale in comparison to how it motivates our actions and sense of duty in the present.