“Courage Under Fire” is a film by Edward Zwick (“Glory”) that uses a “Rashoman” structure to explore the fog of war, friendly fire, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The movie reteams Zwick with his “Glory” star, Denzel Washington. The script is by Patrick Sheane Duncan (“84 Charlie Mopic”). It was released in 1996 and is one of two major motion pictures that are set in the Persian Gulf War. The other being “Three Kings”. Both films are what I simply call “modern war movies”.
|Serling: "Get some!"|
Washington plays Lt. Col. Nathan Serling. Serling is suffering from PTSD due to a friendly fire incident during the Persian Gulf War. While leading a tank assault on the opening night of the ground war (with burning oil wells in the background), he fires on a tank commanded by his friend Capt. Boylar. The Army awards him a Silver Star for that night and covers up the incident. He is put in a desk job, but he is haunted by the accident. He is drinking and is separated from his family. His commanding officer Brigadier General Hershberg (Michael Moriarity) gives him an assignment to help him recover. He is to investigate the possible awarding of the Medal of Honor to a female soldier. The Army expects him to give the green light to this publicity bonanza, but Capt. Karen Walden’s (Meg Ryan) story is complicated.
|"Don't shoot till you see the men"|
The official story is Walden flew her medevac Huey to rescue a downed Black Hawk crew. Taking fire from an Iraqi tank, Walden’s crew dropped a fuel cell on the tank and set it afire with a flare gun. They still went down, however. One of the crew (Rady) was badly wounded. They held out under fire through the night. The next day they were rescued, but Walden was killed and left behind. She’s a heroine, right? Or was she actually a typically cowardly female?
|the brave version of Ilario|
|Cobras versus Iraqis. Spoiler alert: we kick ass!|
Herschberg pressures Serling to issue a rubber-stamped report. When he refuses, he is taken off the case. Would you believe he decides to pursue the truth on his own? (You’ve seen movies before, haven’t you?) He is aided by, you guessed it, an investigative reporter named Gardner (Scott Glenn) who is actually investigating the friendly fire incident. The subplots intersect.
I won’t give away the rest. There are some interesting twists. We get to see what actually happened in reenactments of both the Walden scenario and the Serling friendly fire incident. Everything is tied up in a nice, tearjerking ball.
This is a multi-layered movie. It juggles several themes and two major plots. The themes include: shit happens in war (friendly fire), the military likes to cover up shit that happened, the authorities want heroes (or heroines) for the masses, PTSD can effect even the strongest personalities. The plots of Serling dealing with his trauma and investigating the Walden case weave together effectively. Duncan’s script is strong. There are some cool twists. The “Rashoman” elements are well done and entertaining. It is not obvious which recreations are the truth It gets a bit hammy in the end, but remember this film was made for a mass audience, not for hard core war movie nuts. It is not a cynical movie. This is part of what I mean by a “modern war movie”.
|Monfriez: "Say you hate women soldiers"|
The movie is technically sound. The cinematography is outstanding. The combat scenes are visceral, if a little too pristine. The soundtrack is restrained and does not push emotional buttons too much. The acting is top notch. No surprise that Washington is amazing. He does tormented like no other. His scenes with his wife (Regina Taylor) are powerful. She holds her own, by the way. If you want to see a master at work, watch his visit to Boylar’s parents to tell them the truth about their son’s death. The rest of the cast is excellent. You can see Damon’s promise as he portrays the drug-addled Ilario. He lost forty pounds for the later scenes. An example of method acting that damaged his health for a while. Phillips is surprisingly good as the macho Monfriez. He gets a great death. Moriarity portrays the general as compassionate, but part of the establishment. Glenn is appropriately rumpled as the news hound. Kudos must go to Ryan. She has to play too totally different characters in the flashbacks. She pulls it off without looking silly. No small feat.
|a Centurion playing an Abrams|
As far as accuracy, the movie is not based on a true story. You can see a seed of inspiration from the incident in the Battle of Mogadishu ("Black Hawk Down") involving the snipers (Shughart and Gordon) that rescued Durant. But, intentionally or not, I found the tale of Jessica Lynch to be another possible inspiration. Lynch was captured during the war and the early press reports had her as a female warrior. The truth turned out to be a lot tamer and less heroine-worthy. The movie is a bit unrealistic on two accounts. The tank tactics in the friendly fire incident has the M1A1 Abrams (actually disguised British Centurions due to DOD withdrawal of support for the film) virtually hub-to-hub in formation. This isn’t the Napoleonic Wars, Zwick. The medevac Huey is too well-armed for a chopper with a red cross on it. These dudes were hardly noncombatants, but the movie does not make the case that the tank should not have fired on them and I can see where medevac crews might arm themselves beyond the Geneva Convention rules. The dropping of the fuel cell is clearly ridiculous, but Hollywood has to have its explosions.
“Courage Under Fire” got some love from the critics and did acceptable box office, but I am obviously a bigger fan than most. I have read criticism of the conclusion, in particular. However, if a movie can draw a tear from me, I’ll man up to it and say kudos. Any other criticism of the plot is perplexing. Some of it may be critics being critics and not reacting well to anyone attempting to copy “Rashoman”. Boy, are they protective of those classics! But since most people don’t have a clue about “Rashoman”, chill out.
Sadly (and shamefully) I read a review by a war movie expert who I respect and he disliked the movie partly because he could not see a female soldier behaving bravely in combat. That is bull shit! Let’s face it, it may be against the law, but we have had females in combat since the Gulf War. It’s just the nature of the “war with no front lines” that we have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan (and future locales). I have read nothing to indicate that our female soldiers have become sniveling cowards when the bullets are flying around. The Walden character is believeable and in the not too distant future we will have our first female Medal of Honor awardee for combat action. You go, girls!
grade = A
Since I wrote this review, the Pentagon has announced plans to allow females to become combatants beyond fighter pilots. Looks like we will see that female Medal of Honor winner sooner than I expected.