Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Movie Review: Courage Under Fire (1996)


An intense, character-driven war drama, Courage Under Fire examines the damage that war inflicts on soldiers, and the rush to proclaim heroes as an easier alternative to confronting the fallibility of those who fight.

During a chaotic nighttime battle in the 1990/91 Gulf War, tank battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) mistakenly opens fire on one of his own tanks, killing his friend Captain Boylar. After the war the error is hushed up by the army, but Serling is traumatized by the incident, growing detached from his family and turning to drink. As an easy and apparently straightforward assignment to help his recovery, Serling is appointed to investigate the potential posthumous award of a Medal of Honor to medical helicopter pilot Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan). She saved the crew of a downed chopper by destroying an enemy tank, but her own helicopter then crashed. Walden and her crew held out against enemy fire overnight, but she eventually died, seemingly heroically, before a rescue could be completed.

Serling sets out to find and talk to Walden's surviving crew members, including the injured Warrant Officer Rady (Tim Guinee), the withdrawn medical Specialist Ilario (Matt Damon), the macho Staff Sergeant Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), and the very sick crew chief Sergeant Altameyer (Seth Gilliam). Their stories differ in small but key details, forcing Serling to delve deeper into what happened when Walden and her crew were pinned down overnight by enemy fire. With pressure mounting on Serling to finish his report and the nightmares from the friendly fire incident growing more intense, Serling finds that once again, the truth may be more difficult to handle than anyone cares to admit.

Courage Under Fire presents an intriguing battlefield mystery, with a tortured hero as the investigator trying to piece together the fragments of a disjointed story. Director Edward Zwick intertwines two key threads, as Serling pushes against his demons while tracking down each of Walden’s crew members to secure their version of a hellish night stranded in the Iraqi desert.

Every version is recreated on-screen, Zwick turning up the volume on an admittedly gripping drama of explosions, gunfire, and soldiers under extreme stress outnumbered and surrounded by the enemy. The variations in the story initially appear small and irrelevant, but some of the jigsaw pieces simply don't fit to Serling’s satisfaction, and he doggedly pursues a more complete picture of Karen Walden’s actions on that fateful night. When the truth finally emerges, it is both a victory and a defeat for the army, and a much messier and more complex narrative than the simple premise of a heroic pilot saving lives.

For all the noisy scenes of warfare, Courage Under Fire works because it’s the story of two compelling people. Serling exists in the present and is haunted by the past, Walden exists in the past and is being investigated in the present. The interaction between two perceived heroes who never met but are yet dropped into the same cauldron of convenient lies and easy labels forms the throbbing heart of the film.

The ending is less effective. Zwick and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan opt for a crescendo of unrestrained positive emotion wrapped in the flag, the equivalent of an unnecessary sugar overdose.

Denzel Washington is magnetic as the army man tormented by the mistruths that the army is happily peddling on his behalf. Washington maintains a deliberate, controlled stance as Serling, never resorting to dramatics and remaining true to a good commanding officer’s convictions.  Ryan’s performance is predominantly limited to the one showcase scene repeated several times from different perspectives. Limited as it is, Karen Walden is a refreshing change from Ryan’s typical lightweight romance roles. Matt Damon, in one of his early noticeable screen appearances, is frighteningly emaciated as Specialist Ilario, a man wasting away from the stress of hiding more than his soul can bear. Scott Glenn has a small role as a nosy journalist.

Courage Under Fire packs plenty of impressive firepower, both on the battlefield and in the battle’s echo.






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