Friday July 12, 1996
We know their names as well as we know our own: honesty, bravery, a sense of decency. They're the virtues we insist we honor most and they're also the most difficult to portray on screen without plunging into sentimentality, without making those who possess them look naive or absurd or both.
"Courage Under Fire" avoids those traps and several others. Intelligent, involving and serious, it is as honestly emotional as Hollywood allows itself to get, a story of the search for wartime truth whose own concern for the genuine makes all the difference.
Because it is a studio picture, "Courage Under Fire" has the overall tidiness, the urge to dot the I's and cross the Ts, that typifies projects that have attracted director Edward Zwick ("Glory," "Legends of the Fall") and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan (the unfortunate "Mr. Holland's Opus").
But here both men (Duncan, himself a combat veteran, was given an uncredited assist by Susan Shilliday) have pushed past business as usual, have insisted on a level of believability and evenhandedness that adroitly camouflages the story's more schematic elements.
Though publicity images hint otherwise, "Courage Under Fire's" two stars, Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan, do not share screen time. But their joined strengths, the authenticity of their performances, gives the film's dramatization of moral and ethical dilemmas an objective edge that also touches the heart.
Washington plays Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling, a tank commander in the Gulf War. In a frenetic, confusing battle at a spot called Al Bathra (a sequence whose chaos makes the concept of friendly fire understandable), Serling gives an order that mistakenly results in the death of his closest friend.
Transferred back to a desk job in Washington, prevented from speaking publicly about the incident, Serling is a good man in a moral crisis. Assured that he won't be abandoned by the service he's given 17 years to, the colonel's commitment to doing the right thing makes his mistake almost unbearably painful. He starts to develop a drinking problem and though he tells his wife, Meredith (Regina Taylor), that he's handling things, we can see that he's not.
As good as Washington has been previously--few actors have been as consistently effective--there is a sense in "Courage Under Fire" that he has raised his acting to a new plane of emotional connection. Washington's ability to quietly but forcefully convey intangibles like integrity and a sense of mission help make this an inordinately moving and sophisticated performance.
The colonel's troubles, however, are only the backdrop to "Courage Under Fire's" main drama. For that routine desk job, investigating possible candidates for the Medal of Honor, becomes anything but pro forma.
Assigned to determine whether the death in battle of Medevac helicopter pilot Capt. Karen Walden (Ryan) warrants the medal, Serling finds himself under intense political pressure. For the president's men are eager for the opportunity to present the medal to the photogenic young daughter of what would be the first woman to get this preeminent combat decoration.
At first Serling's investigation turns up the expected minor discrepancies. But the more he looks into what happened at that remote desert location, the more the incident takes on aspects of "Rashomon" in a helicopter, as each survivor remembers things with a significantly different spin. And the uncertainty the colonel feels over his own situation, his desire to believe in heroes vying with his determination to have the truth come out, seep into the investigation.
Though she's seen only in abbreviated flashbacks, the role of Walden is critical because reconstructing her character is "Courage's" central concern. With a hard Texas twang and the determination to lead that is resented as "butch," Walden is not an easy role to play well and Meg Ryan brings to it skill plus the critical residue of accumulated likability that serves her well in the film's darker moments.
"Courage" also benefits from the strength of its supporting players. Lou Diamond Phillips gives an intense, focused performance as Monfriez, a crew member with an essential piece of information, and Scott Glenn adds believability to the standard sequences of a probing Washington Post reporter. Just as impressive is Michael Moriarty, rarely seen in features these days, who gives a convincing spin to the often pro forma role of the powerful commanding officer, Gen. Hershberg.
Though, unlike "Rashomon," we eventually do find out what happened on that helicopter, it is to Zwick and the script's credit that the film never tips its hand. Each of the several looks we get at Walden's actions is creditable while on the screen and it is hard to ask for more than that.
And while its re-creation of combat is not "Courage Under Fire's" most involving aspect, the film succeeds in making the Gulf War seem more of a real event than all the footage shipped back on CNN could. And it also points out, without seeming to try, that if war has the potential to bring out the best in individuals, it does so at the most terrible price.
Courage Under Fire, 1996. R, for war violence and language. A Davis Entertainment/Joseph M. Singer production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Edward Zwick. Producers John Davis, Joseph M. Singer, David T. Friendly. Executive producers Joseph M. Caracciolo, Debra Martin Chase. Screenplay Patrick Sheane Duncan. Cinematographer Roger Deakins. Editor Steven Rosenblum. Costumes Francine Jamison-Panchuck. Music James Horner. Production design John Graysmark. Art director Steve Cooper. Set decorator Rick Gentz. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. Denzel Washington as Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling. Meg Ryan as Capt. Karen Walden. Lou Diamond Phillips as Monfriez. Michael Moriarty as Gen. Hershberg. Matt Damon as Ilario. Seth Gilliam as Altameyer. Bronson Pinchot as Bruno. Scott Glenn as Tony Gartner. Regina Taylor as Meredith.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times