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  • Andres Benatar

In The Line of Fire Character Study: John Malkovich's Mitch Cleary

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

It’s nothing new so much as something special in the course of cinema to introduce a great antagonist. In fact, it’s become a recent phenomenon over the past decade to use the concept of a great film antagonist as a means of allowing screenwriters the best approach of how to accomplish something similar. Some of the more notable examples come in the form of characters like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector, or Josh Brolin’s Thanos.

What Makes An Antagonist Stand Out?

The thing that makes all these villains unique is that they all carry the element of an empathetic gaze of which an audience can understand the reasons for why they do what they do as opposed to outwardly condoning or straight out condemning the horrors of their evil acts.

Now, when it comes to that element, the added factor of how their views challenge that of the protagonist is what makes them stand out beyond a simple amount of years and even into the span of decades. Characters like Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal Lector or James Earl Jones’ Darth Vadar have stood the test of time as a result of those very qualities. However, when it comes to a character from a Clint Eastwood film, his most iconic Police or Western films have rarely provided such an archetype.

It’s only through the lens of what could’ve turned into a standard 90’s political thriller with the risk of far too many cliches to count that a character like that of John’s Malkovich’s Mitch Leary has gone under the radar. As stated, the surface-level look of a film like In The Line Of Fire presents that of what seems like a standard and near cliche-oriented political thriller where the protagonist and antagonist have their die-hard-Esque collage of oppositional phone conversations. But In The Line Of Fire proves to be more than just a one on one conflict between a standard Eastwood tough guy and a complete renegade loon.

More Than Just An A-Historical Thriller

Unlike most political thrillers, which too often overuse historical events to dramatize the intensity of the story, the film uses its cliche-bordering nature to tell a story about self-redemption and moving past the kind of trauma that would leave any good man in a state of utter stagnation.

In the case of disgraced secret service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood), his failure and fear of taking the bullet for President Kennedy back in '63 have haunted him so much that not only did it lead to the self-destructive compensation alcoholism usually offers those who see no other way out of their shame, but in addition to that, it also leads to the dissolution of his family life.

How To Make An Antagonist Empathetic

Both standard cliches and even politics aside, the flip element of In The Line Of Fire all reverts back to its antagonist Mitch Leary, who also goes by the name of James Carney, and essentially Booth whenever he has his Die-Hard based conversations with Frank, who he specifically chose as his opponent, while equally referring to him as his friend.

In the context of any other thriller, this narrative device would’ve fallen flat right away, and yet, it manages to work through the intelligent interplay Malkovich’s empathetic antagonist displays every time he refers to Frank as his “friend,” especially after openly announcing his intent to murder the president in the middle of an election.

It would be careless to argue that many elements within In The Line Of Fire are barely explored to a greater degree of surface-level detail. The presidential election for one is merely presented with no clear understanding of the leanings of the candidate, or even the film’s stance on the Kennedy assassination beyond Frank’s guilt in being too scared to take the bullet.

But then again, it would be even more careless to argue that there is anything remotely political about In The Line Of Fire. It operates within the realm of politics, but more so on the dualistic elements that give the antagonist Mitch Leary that much more empathy given that in addition to being an assassin, he is also one of the CIA’s former hunting dogs.

As an ahistorical apolitical thriller, In The Line Of Fire doesn’t shy away from the controversial conspiracies that have floated around the assassination of JFK, but nor does it indulge in promoting any particular one. If anything, the film in retrospect is the story of two very wounded men. One seeks self-redemption, and the other seeks vengeance.

Both Horrigan and Leary were betrayed in some way or the other by the very establishment that assigned them an identity, though it could be argued that Leary’s pain is far more understandable given his willingness to admit he is a monster while demonizing the very hypocritical institutions that “can't have monsters roaming the quiet countryside.”

Lines like that and “Do you have any idea what I've done for God and country? Some pretty fucking horrible things! I don't even remember who I was before they sunk their claws into me,” only further make the character of Mitch Leary more empathetic in his conception as an antagonistic foil to a man who has been just as betrayed as Frank Horrigan.

What Unites/Separates Horrigan And Leary

Leary’s rage and his desire for vengeance are what differentiates him from a man like Frank. Both are willing to die for what they believe in. Both want some form of peace. Plenty of attempts are made by both men within the film.

For Horrigan, it comes in the form of piano playing at his local bar. For Leary, it usually comes through the frequent observance he gives Frank, whilst preparing for the assassination he will find to be his final step towards peace, as well as a chance for Frank to find his own measure of peace.

It’s become quite common to find an antagonist in cinema that is both three-dimensional and empathetic enough for an audience to understand where they are coming from. The fact they can make the protagonist question their own moral outlook on the world shows the sophistication of the screenwriter (Jeff Maguire) that crafted them.

However, it’s rare to have an antagonist who expresses his own intention of giving the protagonist a better more peaceful life, which is tragically told in the last voicemail Leary left Horrigan right before his death:

“Hello, Frank. By the time you hear this, it'll be over. The President is most likely dead, and so am I. I wonder, Frank, did you kill me? Who won our game? Not that it really matters, for among friends like you and me, it's not whether you win or lose but how you play the game, and now the game is done and it's time to get on with your life. But I worry, Frank, that you have no life to get on with. You're a good man, and good men like you and me are destined to walk a lonely road. Goodbye, and good luck.”

Such confidence from what is an empathetic but equally disturbed man can be enough to leave the average movie-goer confused and even lost as to what is right and wrong.

The conflict within In The Line Fire Shows that politics is a nasty game. It doesn’t overplay its hand in showing this.

Instead, it trusts its audience enough in simply saying how horrible it is, whilst equally using its protagonist and antagonist as middlemen and victims of that very system to show that in the end, only we as individuals can say where we stand in a game where the fire is always present and the line is hardly straightforward.

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Andres Benatar is resident film expert. You can hear him on the 'Cinema 237' podcast - A podcast for cinephiles.

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