Browse all reviews by letter     A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0 - 9

USA 1996
Directed by
Edward Zwick
155 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Courage Under Fire

Although some might object to the America-centric, pro-militaristic spirit of Courage Under Fire these qualities are after all appropriate to a story which looks at the destructive internal conflicts which are the inevitable result of the prosecution of war.

Denzel Washington plays Army Lieutenant Colonel Serling in charge of a tank division during the Gulf War who inadvertently fires on one of his own tanks during a night-time engagement with the Iraqis. Although exonerated of any wrongdoing, indeed he is decorated for bravery, he is removed from active duty and given the task of investigating the case of Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) who has been recommended for a Medal of Honour in an unrelated incident in which she died.

Using the technique of Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa's 1950 classic which depicts a number of different remembrances of the same event, Courage Under Fire shows us multiple versions of an incident in which Walden’s helicopter was shot down in a gun battle in enemy-held territory. As Serling interviews survivors contradictions begin to emerge in their accounts that he can’t reconcile. Was she a hero or a coward?

Based on fact (the real subject of the investigation was Dr Mary Edwards Walker) the well-turned script by Patrick Sheane Duncan weaves together a number of threads – Serling’s sense of guilt that is driving him to drink and threatening his marriage, the post-traumatic stress disorder affecting veterans of the war, attempts by the White House of make use of Walden’s death for political purposes, the need to the top brass to boost morale and so on - without bluster or preachiness.

Washington is in his element in this kind of valiant “officer and a gentleman” role as Serling struggles to keep his demons out of sight. Although Ryan gets equal billing she only has a relatively small role. She was a big drawcard at the time albeit as a rom-com favourite and this was evidently part of a move to escape typecasting but she might as well not have bothered as neither Duncan nor Zwick give her anything to do even keeping her looking perkily tousled under fire (she does get one good line however. When she is shot in the abdomen and her male colleagues offer to help her she says "I delivered a nine lb  baby. I think I can handle the pain"). Matt Damon will raise some eyebrows as he lost a health-threatening forty lbs for his pre- and post-incident incarnations and is barely recognizable in the latter scenes.

Zwick, who helped Washington to win a Best Supporting Oscar for Glory (1989) is no Ridley Scott but the action scenes are effectively handled and Serling’s relentless pursuit of the truth is compellingly paced. Although it is commercially understandable the director winds up the film with a merciless bath of sentimentality. It doesn’t entirely spoil what has gone before but restraint here would have resulted in a much more creditable film. .




Want something different?

random vintage best worst