By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 12, 1996
Denzel Washington, already a decorated veteran of Hollywood's trenches, gives one
of his most commanding performances in Edward Zwick's gallant Desert Storm
drama, "Courage Under Fire." Washington and Zwick, who also collaborated on the
Civil War-era "Glory," aren't out to glorify or condemn war. Their objectives are
grander, yet more grounded in the realities of human behavior.
With five war-related pictures between them, actor and director seem resigned to the
inevitability of conflict. Nobody spits on the flag, nor does anyone quite wave one in
this moving meditation on truth, loyalty and leadership. Though the film touches on
contemporary issues such as women in combat and a rise in casualties from friendly
fire, Zwick's principal objective is to reveal the carefully camouflaged realities of the
1991 Persian Gulf War.
For all its high-minded ambitions, "Courage Under Fire" is also a downright
entertaining combo of mystery, melodrama and action adventure. And though it is a
tale of two soldiers, it chiefly focuses on Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling (Washington), a
tank commander who mistakenly fires on one of his own during a midnight battle with
Iraqi forces in Kuwait. Recalled from the Persian Gulf to wait out a hush-hush
investigation, Serling is assigned to review a medevac pilot's candidacy for a
posthumous Medal of Honor.
Gen. Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), his commander and mentor, pressures Serling to
expedite the inquiry, a priority for the president and the military. Capt. Karen Walden
(Meg Ryan) would be the first woman ever awarded the medal, and the brass are
salivating over the positive publicity: The Rose Garden, a pretty little girl with
mommy's medal around her neck. Not a dry eye from Caribou, Maine, to Baja
But Serling becomes suspicious, and the movie becomes the story of one man's
stubborn pursuit of justice.
America's sweetheart dons combat boots and a macho demeanor as the late
Walden, whose story unfolds in a series of contradictory flashbacks. Though not
famous for her technical skill as an actress, Ryan transforms Capt. Walden from
selfless warrior to blubbering coward without betraying the truth.
Lou Diamond Phillips stands out among the film's excellent supporting cast as a
hardened foot soldier with the personality of a Scud. Matt Damon is impressive, too,
as a young medic psychologically emasculated by the events that transpired after
Walden's failed rescue attempt.
Screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan, a combat veteran who directed a cable series
about the Medal of Honor, was inspired by Akira Kurosawa's 1950 "Rashomon,"
which pioneered the use of multiple perspectives. The device proves just as sturdy
half a century later, though the film owes much of its power to Zwick's chaotic,
authentic-seeming combat scenes. But as the man behind the intimate worlds of TV's
"thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life," Zwick is careful to view the big picture
through a limited perspective. Every soldier fights a different war.
Courage Under Fire is rated R for profanity and violence.
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