Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, even when they want to
tell the truth. As an Army lieutenant colonel reconstructs a battle scene in “Courage
Under Fire,” he begins to suspect that some of his witnesses are lying. His
assignment: decide on the suitability of the first woman ever nominated for a
Medal of Honor. His problem: The White House is salivating over the media image
of presenting the posthumous medal to the woman's young daughter, in a ceremony
in the Rose Garden.
The colonel, named Serling and played by Denzel Washington, is
determined to do his job honestly and well, even though his own life is falling
apart. During a night tank battle in the Gulf War, he was indirectly
responsible for taking out an American tank with friendly fire. An Army
investigation excused him, but now his sleep is fragmented by nightmares, he's
drinking too much, and he has moved out on his wife and children. The
investigation is about the only thing holding him together.
woman under consideration for the Medal of Honor is Capt. Karen Walden (Meg
Ryan), who commanded a helicopter in the battle zone. After taking out an enemy
tank by the refreshing improvisation of dropping a fuel tank on it, Walden's
chopper was shot down by enemy fire. Nearby American troops heard M-16 fire,
apparently by the wounded Walden, that kept the enemy at bay the next morning,
until her men could be rescued. For this she certainly deserves the medal--if
that's how it happened.
Zwick and Patrick Sheane Duncan, the director and writer, construct their
screenplay with a nod to “Rashomon” (1950), Akira Kurosawa's famous film in
which four defendants give their wildly different testimony about a murder. In “Courage
Under Fire,” the witnesses are Walden's own men. Ilario (Matt Damon), the
medic, paints Walden as a brave leader sacrificing her life for her men.
Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), the gunner, says, “She was afraid, Colonel.
She was a coward. That's the bottom line on your Capt. Walden.” Another crew
member, Altameyer (Seth Gilliam), languishes in a veterans' hospital, confused
the Denzel Washington character, doggedly conducts his investigation by day and
spends his nights boozing in hotel bars. He is being tracked by a reporter for
the Washington Post (Scott Glenn), who suspects there was a cover-up of the
tank destroyed by friendly fire. Serling tries to avoid him, but Serling is a
man who desperately needs to tell the truth to someone, and the reporter is
interlocking investigations all take place under the thumb of the unrelenting
Gen. Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), who wants the friendly fire incident kept
quiet and the Medal of Honor approved (there is urgent pressure from the White
House). Hershberg turns the screws, threatening Serling's Army promotion path
and hinting at reprisals (“I know about the drinking”).
Under Fire” is Hollywood's first film about the Gulf War, and one of the rare
films to deal with women in combat. But it is not simply a war film; there are
also personal issues involved, and the story does a good job of dealing with
the relationship between Serling and his wife (Regina Taylor), who tells him
she will wait for him--but not forever.
role is the central one, and he handles it well, playing a man who sticks to
procedure and self-discipline even in the midst of emotional chaos (before the
tank battle, he leads his men in prayer, and then adds, “Now let's kill 'em
all!”). Meg Ryan's role is a different kind of challenge: In the flashbacks
through the eyes of her men, she is seen in three or four entirely different
styles of behavior. The movie doesn't give us one Capt. Walden but several, for
us (and Serling) to choose among.
direction handles the many conflicting story possibilities with great clarity.
And the opening sequence, involving the mistaken tank attack, makes it clear how
confusing battle is, and how differently it will be perceived by each
participant. The end of the film understandably lays on the emotion a little
heavily, but until then “Courage Under Fire” has been a fascinating emotional
and logistical puzzle--almost a courtroom movie, with the desert as the