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Courage Under Fire (1996)
Courage Under Fire is a 1996 film directed by Edward Zwick, and starring Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips and Matt Damon. It is one of the first films to depict the 1991 Gulf War. Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) was involved in a friendly fire incident in Al Bathra during the Gulf War. He was an M1 Abrams tank battalion commander who, during the nighttime confusion of Iraqi tanks infiltrating his unit's lines, gave the order to fire, destroying one of his own tanks and killing his friend Captain Boylar. The details were covered up (Boylar's parents were told that their son was killed by enemy fire), and Serling was shuffled off to a desk job. Later, he is assigned to determine if Army Captain Karen Emma Walden (Meg Ryan) should be the first woman to receive (posthumously) the Medal of Honor for valor in combat. A Medevac Huey commander, she was sent to rescue the crew of a Black Hawk that had been shot down. Finding them under heavy fire from an Iraqi tank and infantry, her men dropped an auxiliary fuel bladder on the tank and ignited it with a flare gun. Shortly after, her helicopter was also hit and downed.
I'm not saying the Gulf War was a bad, or unjust, operation. It's more of a joke than anything else, and that's why when a film comes out attempting to glamorize the war and make heroes out of fictional soldiers and fictional events, I greet it with a bit of skepticism. Courage Under Fire (just out on DVD) is the first real Gulf War movie. It probably won't be the last.
Keeping in mind that this is all make-believe, the film's story is this. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) was a helicopter pilot, shot down during a rescue attempt which turned into an ad hoc offensive. Stranded in Iraqi territory overnight, Karen and her crew fended off the enemy until a morning rescue saved them all -- except her.
Or so the story goes. Because of her courage, Karen is being considered for the Medal of Honor, and Serling (Denzel Washington) is on the investigatory case. All seems well until another side of the story surfaces, mainly told by one Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), who says Karen was a coward and that the whole thing is a sham. We see the events (over and over and over and over) from about six points of view, each time with a twist of some sort. On top of that, Serling is fighting his own demons due to a little incident where he blew up a friendly tank -- on accident -- and this incident is played over and over as well.
Where to start with the litany of things that bothered me about Courage? For one, who cares about this story? The characters are not compelling, and Karen is so obnoxious and Ryan's performance is so horrible that I was glad she was dead. (Don't get me started on Ryan's faker-than-fake Southern accent: 'Peeyick 'iiiyem uhhhhp!' (Pick him up!)) Serling's subplot has very little to do with the rest of the story. And the whole thing is just pointless, coming off as propaganda, glamorizing war and the military. Please do not believe the hype.
Then again, the movie is quite pretty. The story, while poor, is well-told at least, and Washington's performance is good, as usual. Comparisons to Rashomon are a bit out of place, but not out of the realm of reason. And I had a lot more fun looking at the local scenery and locations (the movie was largely shot in Austin) than anything else.
I guess the case for Courage Under Fire is that it is exposing this abstract 'truth' of how Americans were killed by friendly fire in the Gulf War. Is that truth? If so, it's one we already knew.
Would you give this chick a medal?