In Edward Zwick's Courage Under Fire, the age-old drama of soldiers doing battle gets a treatment-in-depth that is both overdue and welcome. Between the outright flag-wavers of the 1940s in which John Wayne single-handedly defeated the treacherous Japanese and the heart-of-darkness job Hollywood eventually did on the divisive Vietnam War, there has always been plenty of room for the kind of combat film that examines both the pride of committed soldiers and the terrible ambiguities that doing their duty can inflict on them. Zwick's intelligent and captivating movie fills the bill better than most, despite being set in the most overhyped conflict of the century.
The vast, one-sided destruction in the recent Gulf War may have looked great on CNN to millions of cheering fans, but it failed to achieve two major goals--prolonging the presidency of George Bush and breaking Saddam Hussein's grip on Iraq. What this brief mismatch did accomplish was to annihilate at least 120,000 of Saddam's tormented subjects (while sparing the villain himself), sustain the flow of Kuwaiti crude oil into the West, and keep that country's indolent emirs well-supplied with gold bathroom fixtures. But that's another movie.
Backdrops aside, Zwick and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan have fashioned a valuable story about honor, the varieties of courage and the search for truth. Wisely, it does not seek to inflate those virtues--nor to belittle them. As a start, the filmmakers investigate the actions of an Army Medevac pilot who has been recommended for the Medal of Honor--posthumously. Captain Walden, the preliminary testimony suggests, acted with uncommon valor in saving the lives of a downed helicopter crew surrounded all night in the desert by enemy infantry. That Captain Walden's first name is Karen, that she was farm-bred in Texas and is the first woman ever considered for the high award constitute perfection for the image-builders inside a White House that wants to capitalize on a "popular" war: Rubber-stamp the thing, they insist, and let's move on to the heartrending ceremonies in the Rose Garden.
Enter complications, in the form of the army's investigating officer, Colonel Nat Serling (Denzel Washington). Colonel Serling is a former tank commander just back from Desert Storm himself, and the only reason he's pulled award-investigation duty at all is that he's been involved in one of the Western allies' infamous "friendly fire" incidents: Mistaking an American tank for an Iraqi one amid the fog of war, Serling gave the order to fire. Now his career is in official oblivion, and his personal life has unraveled. He has nightmares. He secretly guzzles little airplane bottles of Scotch. He can no longer relate to his wife (Regina Taylor) and children, and his sour commanding officer (Michael Moriarty) is on him to make quick work of the Walden investigation. There's also a Washington Post reporter (Scott Glenn) as interested in the facts as he is. Serling is driven not only by facts but by the truth--about Walden and about himself.
In deconstructing the mystery of Captain Walden's courage (or lack of it), the filmmakers follow the exemplary path of a great film, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. As related by members of her crew, we get three flashback versions of what Walden did that night in the desert and the morning after, and this gives romantic-comedy specialist Meg Ryan a chance to stretch her talents. As the hard-as-nails Walden, the cowardly Walden, the frightened-but-brave Walden (which is she?), Ryan absolutely shines, and the filmmakers give us a brilliant meditation on the pressures of battle.
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Zwick has been here before, most notably in Glory, his fluent evocation of the trials of black infantrymen in the Civil War. The real surprise is writer Duncan, who laid the inspirational schmaltz on pretty thick in his last effort, the saintly-teacher movie Mr. Holland's Opus. In Courage he shows a harder edge, a feel for service lingo and camaraderie, and a gift for examining morality without moralizing. This portrait of a soldier possessed by demons yet driven by his own kind of bravery relies as much upon Duncan's splendid writing as it does on Washington's considerable acting skills. If you care about such things, look for Denzel among the best-actor nominees on Oscar night.
The remainder of the cast is also astonishingly good--Lou Diamond Phillips as the tough-minded officer Monfriez, Matt Damon as the sensitive medic Ilario, Seth Gilliam as a soldier and a key witness now dying of painful stomach cancer in a VA hospital bed. They are all pieces in the puzzle of Captain Karen Walden, and they're looming figures in the troubled mind of Nat Serling, an officer and a gentleman who finds it hard to live with himself. The battle scenes in Courage are vivid and scary, but it's a tribute to Washington and these filmmakers that the phone call this lonely man makes to his alienated wife in the middle of the night is even more vivid, and that the messiness of heroism revealed here is even scarier.
In years to come, this may be judged a great war movie. For now, it's certainly the best we've got.
Courage Under Fire.
Screenplay by Patrick Sheane Duncan. Directed by Edward Zwick. With Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips and Michael Moriarty.