Courage Under Fire (1996)
Awarding Private Ryan
We have to tell the truth, General, about what happened over there - Nathaniel Serling
For those who have watched Akira Kurosawa's "Rashamon" will know what I am about to say because "Courage Under Fire" works on a similar theme. In "Rashamon" a murder is shown from different view points, in "Courage Under Fire" we see different witness accounts of the same events and these accounts differ. But "Courage Under Fire" is more than just a play on "Rashamon" as this is a war thriller surrounding the Gulf war and aspects of political cover up contribute to this story to give it different layers. As we watch Nat Serling investigate what happened to Karen Walden he also has to deal with his own guilt over what happened under his watch during the war. These combine to create a tense thriller, wanting to be as powerful as "A Few Good Men" but never quite delivering the big powerful punch that it is crying out for.
After an incident during the Gulf War which saw him accidentally blow up one of his own tanks, Lieutenant Colonel Nat Serling (Denzel Washington - Virtuosity) is not only racked with guilt but frustrated by the cover up which is in place to keep the truth from everyone. Now working at the Pentagon he is asked to investigate the case of Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan - When a Man Loves a Woman) who died having saved the lives of not only her helicopter crew but also a downed black hawk and is due to posthumously receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. As Serling goes about interviewing those who were involved he begins to suspect all is not what it seems as stories don't match up and starts to wonder whether another political cover up is going on.
So there are basically two stories going on in "Courage Under Fire" and the opening story is that of Lieutenant Colonel Nat Serling who on the 25 February 1991 was leading an assault when things went wrong and in the confusion the tank he was commanding blew up one of their own. This opening establishes Serling as a man who is racked with guilt, not only personal as he feels the pain of killing a close friend but also the fact that his military superiors want the matter covered up, forcing him to hold his silence. It makes Serling a man conflicted by duty and honour especially when he is then put in charge of the investigation at to whether Captain Karen Walden should posthumously be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, because from his own experience he is suspicious as to whether the honour is a cover up or some publicity spin.
So that leads into the main part of "Courage Under Fire" where it becomes all "Rashamon" like as Serling interviews those who were there when Walden reportedly sacrificed her life to not only save her men but also another downed chopper. And as the story unfolds and Serling talks to the different men each account is slightly different, the facts don't add up to the official report he is expected to rubber stamp. As you can guess this is not exactly new as we get to see the different versions of what happened but it does make for an intriguing movie as we get drawn into the mystery of what really went on. We wonder whether Hayden was a hero, or maybe she was a coward, maybe one of her own officer's racked with guilt is making something up whilst another is trying to forget what really happened. And when we do learn what really happened it is on the money, not quite as we expect but not so far fetched that it doesn't make sense.
Now the thing is that all of this is good, it is intriguing and the blend of flashback action with Serling investigating combines well except the occasional moment of too much bravado creeps in. One version which we see almost has Walden as some sort of John Wayne hero, fearless in death yet another then shows her as a whimpering coward, incapable of making decisions. It's just a little too extreme making it feel just that little bit wrong as are some of the confrontations which Serling has as he tries to get to the bottom of what really happened ending up being a little too over the top.
Yet ironically the moment which you want to be full on when Serling discovers the truth and faces his superior's feels under played. It's crying out for a power moment like at the end of "A Few Good Men" yet it never materialises and feels wrong for not delivering it.
But whilst there are the issues of extremes and sadly Meg Ryan as Captain Karen Walden finds herself having to play these extremes "Courage Under Fire" is full of good performances. Denzel Washington is as solid as ever, a flawed man who is becoming defined by his guilt yet with a sense of moral obligation which keeps him going, keeps him fighting for what is right. And Matt Damon is just as good as the equally conflicted medical officer Ilario, delivering that same sense of struggling, of hiding the truth and the fact that Damon dropped 40 pounds in weight to play the character makes it all the more believable.
What this all boils down to is that "Courage Under Fire" is a very good thriller and works the "Rashamon" style story nicely to draw us into what really happened as we witness the various accounts. It does lack that power moment when the truth comes out and suffers from trying to be to extreme in character between witness accounts but it draws you in and keeps you watching, wanting to know what really happened of the 25th February 1991.
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