DIRECTED BY

Edward Zwick

 

STARRING

Denzel Washington

Meg Ryan

Lou Diamond Phillips

Michael Moriarty

Matt Damon

Seth Gilliam

Bronson Pinchot

Scott Glenn

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1996

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 57 Mins.

Courage Under Fire August 28, 2020

  

ourage Under Fire (1996), an intermittently forceful war story, doubles as a kind of detective tale. Denzel Washington stars in the movie as Lt. Col. Serling, who, early on in the film, is assigned to investigate whether or not Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), who recently died in combat, should posthumously receive the Medal of Honor. She’ll be the first woman honored with the prize. Serling's

Denzel Washington in 1996's "Courage Under Fire."

C

role, essentially, amounts to fact-checking — exchanges with the men who fought alongside her, putting together a narrative that can later be easily regurgitated. What seems to have happened is that in her final moments, Walden made an ingenious last-minute improvisation on the battlefield that circumvented greater destruction — a heroic final act.

 

Courage Under Fire is not a movie fascinated by the uncomplicated — it’s a movie as a skeptic. There is some uncertainty around whether Walden was plainly the fearless leader she is purported to be. One former crew member (Matt Damon) will tell Serling that she was an anomaly — someone who would miraculously seem calmer under pressure than she would in a more controlled setting. Another (Lou Diamond Phillips) will deem her a coward prone to bending when things got tough. When Serling asks the latter why he hasn’t told military higher-ups as much, he shrugs. “They didn’t want the truth," he says. 

 

Courage Under Fire isn’t content just having its investigation have a murkiness to it — there’s another moral dilemma that we’re made to think, at first, is going to be the crux of the movie. As the action starts in the film, we see Serling, in combat, unwittingly destroy one of his own tanks in battle. It’s pitch dark outside, so he mistakes it for one of his enemy’s. Rather than pay the price, military personnel think it better to reassign Serling to a desk job (which is what leads him to the Walden case in the first place) and then proceed to cover up what happened. The movie relishes this irony: of having someone at the center of a coverup be indirectly tasked with preventing what could be another one.

 

Behind-the-scenes machinations take a toll on Serling. The PTSD is already bad — he has violent nightmares, drinks too much, temporarily moves out of his family home — and is clearly exacerbated by the harbored secret. It's torturous for Serling, who still clings to his ideals, to be a potential someone to rain on Walden’s parade. “I just want somebody to be a hero,” he confesses. 

 

Courage Under Fire has clearly been molded after movies like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). In both films, a crime is committed. Rather than get a single, easily unspoolable narrative showing how it played out, we hear or see recollections from several eyewitnesses. Two facts come to the fore that have nothing to do with the sin itself: that as long as subjectivity is part of the equation, there can be no clean-cut reconstruction of any story solely being remade with “as-told-tos”; that there is no such thing as one straightforward reality. Courage Under Fire

effectively translates the nightmarishness of being in Serling’s position. Will the truth remain elusive while also having pressure mount, while also having your own demons eating at you?

 

The film isn't as immaculately terse as Rashomon or The Killing. It’s too long at two hours, and rather than have an undertow of suspense, the interrogations of eyewitnesses have the languor and monotony of ones seen in a typical episode of a crime procedural. The movie is frustratingly indirect in some spots — namely its attitudes around war just generally and how much Walden’s gender plays a part in her characterization by others — while being fairly exacting in others.

turn. We get little sense from the screenplay, penned by Patrick Sheane Duncan, that this paradox births a moment of clarity that might even render some of these characters anti-war. Courage Under Fire needs to be more direct. Patriotic idealism — tangled up with the idea that war is above all a bloody but ultimately necessary force for good — seems to be being extolled. But was that the intention? There was a moment in Crimson Tide (1995), another Washington starrer, where the latter’s character admitted that he believed war, despite his playing a part in it, was typically only good for more war. Even a cursory remark like this might make Courage Under Fire’s ethos clearer. Is it wanting to be rather condemnatory, or isn't it?

 

The film tacitly ponders how Walden’s womanhood plays a part in how she is framed. Her being “the first” to receive this honor has made military personnel and White House officials eager to share her story — paint her as a trailblazer — because they love the optics almost more than the reality of the ostensible accomplishment. When some male characters sing her praises, when others pin her down as overly emotional and shaky on the field, the screenplay for most of the film’s length is subliminally wondering how much of that is rooted in misogyny or, in contrast, in similarly wanting to believe in the gendered, more-exciting-on-paper narrative. But, similar to the film’s lack of clarity around imperialist violence, I wasn’t sure if the movie was trying to implicitly (and thus conservatively) give some weight to the idea that maybe women are unfit to have leadership positions like Walden’s in the military, or, more progressively, that someone’s gender should not always simplistically come ahead of what they have actually accomplished. The outcome of the movie doesn’t exactly move in either direction. It more nebulously has a gender-blindness to it that seems a preventative measure — a way to avoid too explicitly addressing thornier questions. Courage Under Fire does find a cleanish break for Serling — let’s say it involves a reporter (Scott Glenn) with the Washington Post

 

The movie does feature some astonishing performances. Washington is characteristically dynamic. Here he’s like a shaken-up Coke bottle being opened very slowly — the encased rumbles sometimes slipping out but never freely, explosively. What’s certain is that a full-on unbottling needs to happen; Washington gets right the fears over what incredible mess might be made as a result of this necessary catharsis. Damon is convincing as the crew member who is very clearly being eaten up by his war memories — he’s wafer-thin and has taken to chain-smoking — but nonetheless attempts to put up an exterior of normalcy and unbotheredness. He knows something he’s not letting on. How many veterans have themselves experienced a similar plight? Phillips is all staccato. His performance skillfully makes it hazy whether his indefatigable combativeness is rooted in a genuine frustration (Walden getting awarded for being someone he claims she was not) or a concern that a darker truth could be revealed. 

 

Courage Under Fire’s weakest link is almost certainly Ryan, donning a Southern accent that is the aural equivalent of all elbows. In the course of the film 

we're presented a number of versions of who Walden might have been via flashback, and none of them are persuasively realized by the actress. Ryan is pretty uniformly a charismatic performer, best utilized in comedy and featherlight drama; she’s wrong for a part fundamentally requiring her to be so scrappy, mettlesome. She’s a disjointed asset in what is a sometimes worthwhile, but by and large disjointed, movie. C+

 

I

like that the film is adamant that we shouldn’t blindly trust authority figures or institutions because they are powerful, entrenched in tradition. But I was bothered by the way the characters seem only to be disturbed by violence when it’s personal. The movie recurrently shows characters cheering, practically licking their lips, while mightily mowing down the “other,” then realize that what is happening is barbaric when the tables