Courage Under Fire (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's often said that if you're going to borrow, borrow from the best. And, in motion pictures, one of the best is certainly Akira Kurosawa. His The Seven Samurai was remade as John Sturges' immensely popular The Magnificent Seven. His The Hidden Fortress inspired George Lucas' epic Star Wars. And now, the premise of 1950's Rashomon has been re-worked by director Edward Zwick and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan for Courage Under Fire, a powerful and intelligent examination of the consequences of guilt and responsibility, and the meaning of absolute truth.

Courage Under Fire shows us another face of war's horrors, although this particular perspective is less bleak than that of a Platoon or an Apocalypse Now. Those movies were brutally effective because they reveled in bleakness, cynicism, and carnage; Courage Under Fire gains its power by affirming that the cost of war isn't the inevitable eradication of every trace of human dignity and heroism. The acts of valor depicted here stand out because they are contrasted with the barbarism that results from the battlefield transformation of thinking men into heartless killers.

Depending on your point of view, the Gulf War could have been one (or more) of many things: a bold stroke for liberty, a punitive strike against a deserving enemy, muscle-flexing by a president eager to shed his weakling image, or an attempt to whip the country into a patriotic frenzy. For those involved in the combat, however, the political reasoning underlying the war was of little importance. Battle meant the potential for death, and that potential unleashed the best and worst of human nature.

Lieutenant Colonel Nat Serling (Denzel Washington) was a tank commander during the Gulf War. On the night of February 25, 1991, his troops engaged the Iraqis, and, during the confusion, Serling mistook one of his own tanks for the enemy. He gave the order to fire, and ended up killing his best friend. Since then, Serling has been burdened by guilt. He has become an alcoholic, his marriage is falling apart, and the government, which is covering up the incident, hasn't offered a means to assuage his bruised conscience.

Six months after the war's conclusion, Serling is working on the staff of General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), investigating potential medal recipients. In that capacity, he is asked to rubber-stamp the approval of a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for Captain Karen Walden, a helicopter pilot who is credited for saving five lives at the cost of her own. She would be the first woman to receive the Medal of Honor for combat. As Serling begins his investigation, however, he discovers discrepancies in the stories of those involved. He digs deeper, and uncovers contrasting perspectives of the same events. Ilario (Matt Damon), one of the men in Walden's medi-vac unit, claims that "the heavier the pressure, the calmer she got." Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), another of Walden's men, has a different story, stating emphatically, "She was afraid... She was a coward. That's the bottom line..."

Kurosawa's Rashomon depicted a murder from several different viewpoints. Courage Under Fire uses a similar technique for events in the desert. Which Karen Walden is the real one: Ilario's, Monfriez's, or someone else's? Or is the truth unknowable? For Serling, whose honor demands that he get to the bottom of things, understanding what happened when Walden crash-landed becomes an obsession. Even when he is officially removed from the investigation because the White House is getting impatient to award the medal, he refuses to give it up. He asks for help from Tony Gartner (Scott Glenn), a Washington Post reporter, promising answers in return for aid.

Serling's quest is like putting together a puzzle with pieces missing, and we work alongside him to unravel the mystery. The audience is in synch with the film; the script is neither one step ahead of us nor one step behind. Ultimately, as the truth begins to surface, everyone must face the consequences of their actions. Courage Under Fire ends with a moment of catharsis, but there are no overblown speeches -- only a simple, quiet scene that touches the heart more profoundly than anything accomplished by melodramatic manipulation. Is it overly-sentimental? Perhaps. Is it effective? Definitely.

Denzel Washington, whom Zwick directed to an Oscar in Glory, is in top form here, essaying a tormented man with a noble heart who's caught in a vortex of political and emotional turmoil. Meg Ryan, aiming to break away from her reputation as a romantic comedy leading lady, uses this opportunity to attempt more demanding, dramatic acting. Because her character is seen only through the flashbacks of others, she must essentially play multiple roles -- a task which she carries out admirably.

In Glory, Zwick effectively married a powerful human interest story with well- choreographed battle sequences. Here, he once again accomplishes this, although the combat takes place in a far more technologically advanced arena. But the campaigns of Courage Under Fire that leave the deepest impression aren't those involving ground troops and air cover. Rather, they're the deeper, more personal struggles of Nat Serling as he sifts through the war- ravaged elements of the human spirit for that "one little piece of shining something for people to believe in." Courage Under Fire is as profound and intelligent as it is moving, and that makes this memorable motion picture one of 1996's best.

Courage Under Fire (United States, 1996)

Ranked #5 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1996
Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 1996-07-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1