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'Fire': A Little Too Friendly

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 13, 1996

"Courage Under Fire" is a morning-in-America milkshake made of red, white and blue patriotism, teardrops and extra rations of Nutrasweet. It’s the kind of movie that you can enjoy—and cry over—if you’re in the right spirit. Other appealing ingredients in the mix: Denzel Washington, as a beleaguered Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling with bad dreams and a tough, investigative mission; and Meg Ryan, a slain army pilot whose apparent valor on the battlefield is the subject of his inquiry.

With the Gulf War now over, the White House is scrambling for a public hero. Their pet candidate is Capt. Karen Walden (Ryan), a medevac pilot who died in action during a disastrous rescue attempt. Dispatched to the desert to pick up a downed air crew, she and her crew sustained a hit. With the helicopter now downed, Walden and crew found themselves pinned down by enemy soldiers.

"Courage Under Fire" is patterned after Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 "Rashomon," in which an event is told and retold by participants with different, opposing recollections. When Serling separately interviews the surviving crew members (including Matt Damon and Lou Diamond Phillips), he discovers anecdotal discrepancies. That significant night and morning, during which Walden and her crew held out against the enemy, becomes an increasing mystery.

This inconvenient discovery doesn’t sit well with Serling’s friend and superior, General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), who is under tremendous pressure from the White House and Congress to approve Walden’s posthumous medal.

Serling, a former tank commander, is under the gun too. Under investigation for accidentally firing on an American tank during the war, he has been given this easy, rubber-stamp assignment as a way out of his own controversy. But Serling, whose guilt over the friendly-fire incident has caused him to start drinking and distance himself from his family, is determined to make an accurate, thorough report in the Walden case. It doesn’t help matters that weather-beaten Washington Post journalist Tony Gartner (Scott Glenn) keeps pestering him to speak up about his own case.

This movie is for people who can get themselves into the appropriate frame of mind. But if you find it hard to ignore the chemical aftertaste of Hollywood manipulation, this drink won’t go down quite so easily. Personally, I sat through "Courage" with interest, but I wasn’t particularly moved or riveted with suspense. After all, with America’s sweetheart playing Capt. Walden, the question of whether or not her character was a real hero seemed like little to agonize over. But there were dampened eyes around me at the screening, and that had to mean something, right?

COURAGE UNDER FIRE (R) — Contains profanity and battlefield violence.

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