Retro Film Review: Courage Under Fire (1996)

in film •  last month 


Technology and training might be perfected to new and unimaginable levels, but mistakes happen. In the latest war not so insignificant number of Americans has died from the hand of their comrades in the "friendly fire" incidents. One of such incidents occurs at the beginning of Courage Under Fire, 1996 war drama directed by Edward Zwick. On February 25th 1991, during the First Gulf War, Lt. Colonel Nathaniel Serling (played by Denzel Washington) leads his tank unit into assault on Iraqi positions. In the confusion of battle he takes out one of his own tanks, killing a crew that includes his best friend. Six months later he is burdened with guilt and tries to find solace in alcohol. His superior General Hirschberger (played by Michael Moriarty) gives him seemingly routine task. During the war Captain Karen Walden (played by Meg Ryan), medivac helicopter pilot, has died while rescuing American servicemen trapped behind Iraqi lines. She is about to become first woman posthumously receiving Medal of Honour, and White House wants to make public spectacle out of it. Serling must conduct formal investigation. His interviews with surviving members of Walden's crew, however, reveal differing accounts of the incident and Serling starts doubting Walden's heroic conduct. In the meantime, Pentagon and White House put a pressure on him, demanding quick end of the investigation, but Serling is determined to establish truth whatever the cost.

In light of recent events related to Jessica Lynch idea of young pretty blondes being war heroes doesn't look like Hollywood fantasy any more, so Courage Under Fire is going to be more believable now than it was seven years ago. For director Edward Zwick this fictional story was another opportunity to explore the territory similar to his 1989 epic Glory - role of minorities in American military history (blacks in American Civil War, women in First Gulf War). For Meg Ryan this was opportunity to shed her image of romantic comedies queen and play some serious role for a change. Her task is even more complicated because she has to play different versions of the same character. She does it well, but the real star of the film is, of course, Denzel Washington. His regal presence and his character story is in the end more interesting than the story of Walden, because we know its ultimate outcome.

The biggest problem for Courage Under Fire is in its ambition. The film was obvious tailored for "Oscars", and Zwick tries to give extra dimension to otherwise simple story by modelling the main plot around Kurosawa's Rashomon. Unfortunately, unlike in Japanese classic, different perspectives of truth mean very little – the film faithfully observes unofficial rules of modern Hollywood. Since Walden happens to be woman in man's world, we know that she would end up like hero. And even troubled protagonist would be able to exercise his demons, in a scene that puts the traumatic event from the beginning of the film into different light. Because of that, viewers might feel cheated - they have expected thought-provoking exploration of realities of modern warfare and instead got Hollywood fairy tale. Recent events show that, at least from distance, some wars might indeed look like fairy tales, but tell that to people who ended up on the wrong side of "friendly fire".

RATING: 4/10 (+)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on April 16th 2003)


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