July 12, 1996 in Seven

Conscience Under Fire Movie Delves Into Different Perceptions Of The Same Event

Henry Sheehan Orange County Register
 

“Courage Under Fire” belongs to a tradition of high-minded Hollywood movies that deliberately grapple with a divisive national issue and try to wring some sense of national unity out of it.

And, like many of those films it is preoccupied with its theme to a remarkably compressed degree. In this story of heroism, responsibility and grief, there is no room for any notion that doesn’t single-mindedly reflect the central themes.

Yet despite that dramatic inflexibility, “Courage Under Fire” is an often startlingly powerful drama, with an extraordinary grasp of how a single moment can cast a shadow over an entire life, an unusually mature understanding of how institutions protect themselves, and a profound appreciation for the depths of human character.

It is also a terrifc showcase for the talents of Denzel Washington who once again demonstrates his ability to play a character with a roiling internal life and a pronounced intention to mask that from as many people as possible. Naturally, his character, Lt. Colonel Nat Serling, has been officially assigned to an investigation which will be as revealing of himself as of anything else.

That investigation begins in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when Serling is told by his commander, and old mentor and friend, General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), to find out whether the first woman nominated for a Medal of Honor is worthy. Beyond dispute is the fact that Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) put her helicopter, her team and herself at risk when she swooped in under enemy fire to rescue another downed chopper team.

What’s not so clear is what happened later, when her own ship was knocked down and she and her unit spent an evening under fire, an evening that ended with her own death the next morning.

Dwelling on the Gulf War is not something Serling particularly wants to do, since he’s ravaged with guilt over his own part in it. A tank commander, he was concluding a successful assault on an armored Iraqi column when a few enemy tanks infilitrated his own unit. In the haste of battle, Serling had ordered his crew to fire on a target which turned out not only to be a U.S. tank, but one commanded by one of his closest friends.

The Army is in no hurry to expose Serling’s mistake. In fact, they’ve given him a medal for bravery and passed him over for promotion, ambivalent gestures that are supposed to keep him in line. But the internal pressure to tell the truth to his friend’s parents - who have been deliberately misinformed over the circumstances of their son’s death - as well as the unwanted attentions of an investigative reporter, Tony Gartner (Scott Glenn) who has a hint of what happened, are preying on Serling.

Purely as story, “Courage Under Fire” presents us with an absorbing, but essentially melodramatic tale. Its real strength come in the telling. Serling is looking for some “objective” truth, even as the facts of his own case beg for context and explanation.

This ambitious program gets just the acting it needs, particularly from Washington.

Ryan is very good, but in a very different way. Alone of the central characters, she’s not around to give her version of what happened, but has to act out the different variations.

Zwick makes sure the movie delivers on the action level, tank battles and fire fights quick flurries of panic and confusion. But again, these scenes are built around uncertainty, with finality arising only along with the smoke of expended ammunition.

In the end, the movie makes a rare claim for this day and age: That the truth is not only knowable, but good for us, too.

That pain and suffering can never be eliminated by a lie, only exacerbated. That it is able to raise a discussion of national policy in moral terms makes it a rare achievement, too.

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Courage Under Fire” Locations: East Sprague, North Division and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Ed Zwick, starring Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips Running time: 1:56 Rating: R

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Courage Under Fire:” Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: The Army drama “Courage Under Fire” doesn’t manage to be all that it can be. More like two-thirds of what it could be. Everything in “Courage Under Fire” is presented in black-and-white terms and, for a movie that’s supposed to be about the truth, it’s surprisingly dishonest in the way it withholds important information. It’s a bit like an Agatha Christie mystery in that regard, and it is not giving away too much to reveal that, in essence, the butler did it.”

Duane Byrge/The Hollywood Reporter: Starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan as two modern-day Army warriors, this thought-provoking glimpse into backstage-battlefield maneuverings is a sincere and admirable presentation.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Courage Under Fire” Locations: East Sprague, North Division and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Ed Zwick, starring Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips Running time: 1:56 Rating: R

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Courage Under Fire:” Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: The Army drama “Courage Under Fire” doesn’t manage to be all that it can be. More like two-thirds of what it could be. Everything in “Courage Under Fire” is presented in black-and-white terms and, for a movie that’s supposed to be about the truth, it’s surprisingly dishonest in the way it withholds important information. It’s a bit like an Agatha Christie mystery in that regard, and it is not giving away too much to reveal that, in essence, the butler did it.”

Duane Byrge/The Hollywood Reporter: Starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan as two modern-day Army warriors, this thought-provoking glimpse into backstage-battlefield maneuverings is a sincere and admirable presentation.


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