Clint Eastwood has been old for a long time. We might feel a little guilty saying that, except that Eastwood has made the specter of age and infirmity a central part of his screen persona for going on three decades now. Better than any other action hero in film history, he managed to pivot from the role of deadly, cool badass to 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 movie was a huge blockbuster at the box office, nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and groundbreaking in its use of digital special effects. It also is nearly forgotten by audiences, and currently streaming on Netflix.
In the Line of Fire opens with a slow montage of Washington D.C. sights, from the Capitol Building to the Washington Monument to a lingerie final shot of the White House while legendary composer Ennio Morricone’s martial score plays. It is a fitting beginning to a movie so focused on a man obsessed with his own service to his country. Clint Eastwood is introduced being picked up by fellow Secret Service Agent Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott); after the younger agent gives him a list of excuses for being late, he simply tells him not to do it again in a very classically stoic and grim Clint Eastwood manner.
Dylan McDermott ends up tied in a chair in a houseboat with Clint Eastwood pulling the trigger of an unloaded gun at his head to prove his loyalty to some counterfeiters (surprisingly, busting counterfeiters is indeed part of the function of the Secret Service). Eastwood guns them down and then goes on to meditatively play piano in a bar. It’s a masterfully quick bit of business by director Wolfgang Petersen to demonstrate the complexity of his character. Like many of Eastwood’s characters of this time period, there is a deep note of regret in his performance, tempered by light, wry humor. That is even before it is revealed that Clint Eastwood was one of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect President John F. Kennedy at his assassination in Dallas, with his failure to do so becoming a burden on his conscience that has ruined every element of his personal life.
The plot of In the Line of Fire begins in earnest with Clint Eastwood receiving a phone call from a mysterious man (John Malkovich) who identifies himself as “Booth” (as in John Wilkes Booth) and tells him he plans to assassinate the current President. The movie becomes a cat and mouse game between Eastwood and Malkovich, in which the mouse always seems three steps ahead of an aging and out-of-breath cat.
And that is a key part of what makes Clint Eastwood so remarkable as the hero in a tense action thriller like this movie. He makes no attempt to hide his age (he was 63 years old at the time), running out of breath while attempting to keep pace with the President’s slow motorcade, and can’t hope to keep up with Malkovich during a foot chase. At one point, he catches the flu from being out in the rain on duty and completely wrecks an assignment because of it. The key to Clint Eastwood’s longevity as a movie star is not attempting at staying young and invincible but instead embracing his age and diminishing physical presence. Of course, he does end 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 grim and cynical movie, with the shadow of the JFK assassination looming over everything. John Malkovich is revealed to be a former CIA killer who cracked under pressure and is now out to assassinate on a historic scale; it was one of the actor’s first roles as an outright villain and he takes to the creepiness with aplomb. A scene in which he graphically breaks the next of a woman who took too much interest in his along with her roommate, then casually walks away from her barking dog is genuinely disturbing. In another, lesser movie, it might also be revealed that Clint Eastwood was somehow not to blame for JFK’s death, but In the Line of Fire never gives into that. Instead, this is a world where politicians get murdered, the US government trains merciless killers and sometimes regrets always stay with a person.
In the Line of Fire was Clint Eastwood’s immediate follow-up to his Oscar-winning Western Unforgiven, largely perceived as the elegiac apex of the genre. Amazingly, his next movie 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 (as Dirty Harry, no less) into footage of JFK, a year before Forrest Gump broke America’s collective mind pulling the same trick. In the Line of Fire may not be as well-remembered as Forrest Gump or Unforgiven, but it is a shockingly good and well-made thriller worth loading up Netflix for.