Over a span of two months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.
When it hit theaters in July of 1996 “Courage Under Fire” was Hollywood’s first big movie about the Persian Gulf War. But it was far from what could be perceived as a run-of-the-mill war picture. Combat served as a narrative backdrop for what is more accurately a military mystery. It’s one man’s search for the truth and how his personal state of mind depends on being able to tell it to someone…anyone.
In 1996 Denzel Washington was already in top form, here playing Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling. The film opens with him leading a tank platoon into combat just outside of Baghdad. In the chaos of war Serling gives the order to fire on a tank his spotter (Sean Astin) identifies as an enemy but which turns out to be a friendly. US soldiers are killed, the Army covers it up, and Serling is given a desk job at the Pentagon.
Serling works under General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty) who knows the truth but is intent on keeping it under wraps. He gives Serling a new assignment – to run an inquiry on the recommendation to award the Medal of Honor to a female helicopter pilot killed in the line of duty. Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) would be the first woman to receive the honor and the White House is giddy over the optics of a big televised Rose Garden ceremony.
But as Serling begins carrying out what should be a routine inquiry, he immediately notices discrepancies in the testimonies from the soldiers who survived the incident where Walden lost her life. Unable to bear the burden of another cover-up, Serling sets out to find the truth amid intense pressure from Hershberg and the White House to wrap up his investigation quickly and quietly.
Director Edward Zwick and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan do a remarkable job with some pretty tricky material. As Serling interviews the soldiers flashbacks capture their perspectives of the events leading to Walden’s death. The filmmakers deftly handle these transitions both narratively and visually. Duncan’s script is full of strategically revealed detail and information while Zwick gives it visual form through the lens of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins.
There is also a smart and humanizing personal side to the story. Throughout the film we see Serling still haunted by his experience on the battlefield and the truth he knows that needs to be told. He has nightmares, his drinking is out of control, and the stress has driven a wedge between him and his wife (a really good Regina Taylor) and children. His investigation is a way to occupy his mind and keep him from coping.
Washington is truly the linchpin of the film displaying his signature charisma and a subtle intensity that seeps out into every scene. Yet he’s always under control even as his character is emotionally crumbling. Meg Ryan is also quite good. Her tough girl military jargon isn’t always convincing but the variations within her performance certainly are. She’s asked to act out the same scenario several times but each from a different person’s point of view.
Matt Damon and Lou Diamond Phillips are both fantastic as soldiers with very different recollections of Walden and what happened to her. Scott Glenn is a good fit playing a former Ranger but now Washington Post reporter who knows Serling and the Army are covering up what took place on the battlefield near Baghdad.
“Courage Under Fire” is a military drama that delves into an assortment of interesting themes from the deep personal costs of war to women in combat. Its central mystery is compelling even though it takes some time before we finally get to the truth. And even though the emotion is pretty thick in the final 15 minutes it still feels earned.
VERDICT – 4 STARS