Farewell to Wolfgang Petersen, and to a Generation of Hollywood Action

The director made the impossible possible — whether it was a president hanging off the end of Air Force One while fighting bad guys, or Clint Eastwood crying. Photo: Bruce McBroom/Sygma via Getty Images

Late in Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire (1993), Clint Eastwood’s veteran Secret Service agent, Frank Horrigan, stands at a window alongside fellow agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) and sorrowfully recalls the day John F. Kennedy got shot. Frank still feels guilty for failing to protect JFK three decades earlier — guilt that the film’s villain, a psychotic assassin named Mitch Leary (played with slithery glee by John Malkovich), has been using to bait him into a variety of confrontations. In their tense phone exchanges, Frank has avoided talking about JFK, despite Leary’s goading. But now, in this reflective moment with Lilly, he finally opens up about that day. It’s a surprisingly quiet scene (helped along by Ennio Morricone’s mournful score), with the words coming haltingly out of the actor’s lips. And then, Clint Eastwood does a thing he almost never does in movies. He sheds a tear. One solitary tear. The tear seems even to surprise him. He actually recoils ever so slightly upon sensing it.

That tear was not in the script. Reportedly, unbeknownst to Eastwood himself, director Petersen told Rene Russo to gently grab the actor’s hand off-camera during a key point in the monologue, which prompted this rare display of real emotion. It is at that point that Eastwood’s performance, already terrific, becomes one of the greatest of his career. And moments like that — direction like that — is what makes In the Line of Fire more than a mere action thriller, but one of the greatest of films.

That said, Wolfgang Petersen, who died last Friday at age 81, wasn’t known as a director of quietly emotional moments. (In the Line of Fire, for all its chases and shootouts, is one of his more somber pictures.) Petersen’s forte, especially after his arrival in Hollywood, was breathless genre theatrics. In fact, he put his stamp on American action movies even before he arrived. His 1981 German WWII submarine epic Das Boot (nominated for six Oscars, highly unusual for a foreign-language film) might well be an Ur-text for Hollywood in the 1980s and ’90s. Petersen’s camera races through the sub’s corridors, simultaneously evoking fear, claustrophobia … and exaltation. The men talk to the infernal, glorious machine, and the infernal, glorious machine, with its deadly rivets and pounding pistons and ominous groans, practically talks back. Wet metal. Dudes screaming. Soaring music. Look (and listen) closely enough and you’ll feel the beginnings of the boys-with-their-toys aesthetic of James Cameron, Tony Scott, Jerry Bruckheimer, and others. Cameron himself has noted the influence of Das Boot multiple times. Without Das Boot there is no Titanic, or The Abyss. Or Top Gun, or Crimson Tide, or Armageddon.

Once Petersen did get to the U.S., he understood the American action film better than almost anyone else. This was due as much to his aforementioned emphasis on emotion as to his expertise in staging massive set pieces. The enormous waves of The Perfect Storm (2000) are sensational and terrifying in their own right, but what makes them so gripping is the work done to make us care for these poor souls stuck on this rickety tuna boat, with their hopes and dreams and loves and squabbles all drawn with the comforting shorthand of a master. But Petersen also grasps that the men’s relationships have to be intertwined with their relationship to the boat. Other filmmakers (even some very good ones) might keep character development and action separate. Petersen ties it all together, so that they (and we) go into the waves knowing that everything is on the line.

Troy (2004), dismissed by some in its day, impressively breathes fresh life into one of the most-imitated stories of the Western canon, creating compelling character conflicts that enhance the power of its spectacle. We empathize so much with Eric Bana’s Hector, the sensible warrior-prince reluctantly dragged by family loyalty and love into a war he knows is doomed, that the fight to the death between him and Brad Pitt’s Achilles isn’t just exciting, it’s panic-inducing — because even those unfamiliar with The Iliad can sense that Hector, our audience avatar, will die. (With him also dies a huge part of the film’s humanity: The sacking of Troy that eventually follows Hector’s demise is an extended sequence of slaughter, one of the most savage final acts of any major Hollywood film of the past several decades.)

Then there’s Air Force One (1997), every gloriously insane moment of it. If you ever get the opportunity to see that in a packed theater, don’t miss the chance; it’s like going to a concert. Look, this is a movie in which the president of the United States, played by Harrison Ford, has to fight a bunch of terrorists who have taken his plane and his family hostage. It’s a ludicrous premise, made even more ludicrous by the specific story beats, which involve multiple nutty midair rescue attempts and a finale that has the president swinging off Air Force One as it plunges into the sea.

And because it’s all so ridiculous, Petersen understands that he can never afford to lose the audience. There’s no way to take this material seriously, but it would also be a grievous error to treat it as a joke. So, how do you strike a middle ground? You don’t. Petersen flies to both extremes, simultaneously. He approaches the movie with full sincerity, while fully embracing its ridiculousness. He uses the plane the way he used the submarine in Das Boot and the Andrea Gail in The Perfect Storm: as both a marvel and an obstacle course, one where you never know what challenge it will throw at you next. He also makes sure that the emotions are pitched to unimaginable heights. There isn’t a quiet moment in the film, because why would there be? Read the premise again. The people onscreen are just as bewildered by everything that’s happening as we are, which makes them shockingly relatable. They’re howling, we’re howling, and a silly action movie becomes a work of pure catharsis.

Such approaches made Petersen something of a risk-taker — more than people realized — and his filmography is certainly filled with pictures that didn’t exactly break through. His under-seen 1991 neo-noir Shattered has one of the craziest reveals of any movie ever made. (I still remember screaming when I watched a VHS of it in my mom’s basement.) His first English-language film, The NeverEnding Story (1984), was a generational hit in Europe but a misfire in the U.S., perhaps because American audiences had been too seduced by the razzle-dazzle of the Spielberg generation to buy a film with such awkward effects. For the kids who did embrace The NeverEnding Story, however, the effects didn’t matter; the film was too emotionally forthright, too filled with the anxious, magic melancholy of youth, to dismiss. The failure of Poseidon (2006), in which Petersen attempts all the things he did in his action classics but with less success, seemed to end his American career. He did make one final film in Germany, the heist comedy Four Against the Bank, in 2016 (a remake of a film he’d made for German TV in the 1970s), but as far as I can tell, it was never released in the U.S. I had always hoped that he would one day make his triumphant return to the big screen. But maybe it was sadly appropriate that he didn’t. The emotionally florid, achingly sincere big-budget action melodramas that he specialized in feel like they’ve gone pretty much extinct in recent years. Even if he had delivered one final, audience-friendly banger, would we, with our pathological superiority to everything we consume onscreen nowadays, even recognize it for what it was?

Farewell to Wolfgang Petersen, and the Sincere Action Movie