Courage Under Fire
- Denzel Washington as Lieutenant Colonel Nat Serling
- Meg Ryan as Captain Karen Walden
- Lou Diamond Phillips as Staff Sergeant John Monfriez
- Matt Damon as Specialist Ilario
- Michael Moriarty as Brigadier General Hershberg
- Scott Glenn as Tony Gartner
- Tim Guinee as Warrant Officer Rady
- Seth Gilliam as Sergeant Altameyer
A gripping drama, with the Gulf War as the main backdrop, Courage Under Fire examines how elusive it can be to get to the bottom of the truth and the haunting spectre of war. With intelligence and effective performances, Courage Under Fire becomes a story driven by emotion rather than just a generic war drama.
Dedicated Lieutenant Colonel Nat Serling served during the Gulf War were he experienced something that will haunt him forever. While engaged in combat, he gave an order to shoot what he thought was an enemy tank. It turned out that the tank was in fact one of his own and in effect he killed one of his closest friends. Reeling from this, Nat struggles to cope with this burden, while the army covered up the knowledge of friendly fire. Nat falls into sorrow and can barely hold it together when he is then given a new assignment. He is to evaluate the posthumous candidacy of Captain Karen Walden, a pilot who helped save the lives of many men whose helicopter was shot down, for the Medal of Honor. Although she saved the lives of many, Karen in turn died during later events that crumbling Serling attempts to piece together. He goes about this assignment by talking with members of her team. But Nat soon learns that no two stories are the same. The traumatised medic on the mission Ilario paints Karen as a heroic woman who wouldn’t give up, whereas the Staff Sergeant Monfriez bitterly denounces her as a coward who endangered those around her. The other two people who were there, Warrant Officer Rady who was brutally injured and Sergeant Altameyer both are in no fit state to talk as Rady was unconscious for most of the time and Altameyer is slowly dying. With all these discrepancies and inconsistencies surrounding this, it isn’t going to be easy getting to the bottom of this case. Matters aren’t helped by Tony Gartner, a journalist who is skulking around and Nat’s superior General Hershberg putting pressure on him to finish the job. Nat must now piece together the final moments of Karen’s life to determine if she deserves the award and also confront the possibility of a cover up surrounding her untimely death.
A lot of the gripping power that is derived from Courage Under Fire comes courtesy of director Edward Zwick. Through his deft direction, he presents many plausible angles to the unraveling case that Nat must contend with in order to get to the truth. Zwick brings the intelligently written screenplay to life, capturing the destructive effects the war can have on people’s minds and themes such as self-honour, bravery and deception. And I must commend the film for managing to balance intense scenes of war with drama, and keeping it all together. Courage Under Fire has a lot of power going for it and the structure of it, which allows us to see differing perspectives that could be lies or the truth. It’s only in the last half of the movie that the emotional parts begin to get a bit out of hand, but throughout the majority of it, Courage Under Fires manages to keep you invested and not go overboard on things. The overdoing of emotions in the last half is the only real flaw in a film that is done with clarity and control. The cinematography provided by Roger Deakins is exemplary in its use of colours, from the orange hues of the desert to the grey that suggests the emotional fracturing of minds and the damaging fallout from war, the visuals are a highlight of style here. A slowly building score from James Horner underpins the search for the truth and Nat’s personal demons that he can’t let go of.
Courage Under Fire is given a whole lot of power and heft due to the strongly assembled cast. In the lead role of the troubled Nat, Denzel Washington excels. He never overplays his emotions but lets us glimpse the way that his experience in war has torn him apart and how being assigned this case is a way for him to do something good. Washington exudes a sympathetic decency that is hard to deny and the need to bring the long-buried truth to the surface. In a particular difficult role, Meg Ryan is excellent as the deceased Karen who is portrayed through the eyes of others as many things. Ryan delves into the part and shows us the sides to this tough woman that others witnessed, that could be the truth or lies. Thankfully, instead of over complicating the part, Meg Ryan lends each side of what the character may be plausibility that rings true. Lou Diamond Phillips makes his mark as the arrogant, macho Monfriez who often thinks of himself as higher than his rank. It is Matt Damon who really caught my eye in this movie as the traumatised and drug-addicted Ilario. It has been well-documented the physical transformation that Damon made for the part that lead to health problems for him at the time. But as physically convincing as Damon is, with his gaunt face and emaciated physique, it’s the emotion that he puts into the part that really stands out. In supporting roles, Michael Moriarty and Scott Glenn are well served as Serling’s superior and an opportunistic journalist. Tim Guinee and Seth Gilliam are less well served as two of the men who were in rescue with Karen, but both of them still give credibility to their parts.
An intriguing war drama that is well-paced and acted with power by the cast, Courage Under Fire is filled with a deep sense of urgency to compliment the deep themes it covers and grips you with.