Courage Under Fire is a superbly crafted wake-up call for all of us who watched a CNN-filtered view of the Gulf War. There’s a misconception among many that Desert Storm was an extraordinarily clean little war. This film – the first major release to deal with the Iraqi conflict – does an honorable and credible job of putting those myths to rest.
Denzel Washington is Army Lt. Colonel Nat Sterling, a man haunted by a friendly fire incident that he was responsible for. After the war, he’s given the relatively simple job of investigating a Medal of Honor candidate – a female chopper pilot (Meg Ryan) who was killed after being shot down in a rescue attempt.
What follows is a tightly constructed mystery where seemingly small details draw Serling in deeper to reveal something more sinister. The bulk of the film is spent trying to recreate exactly what happened at the crash site that night in the Iraqi desert. The pilot is portrayed as either a hero or a coward depending on who’s telling the story. As a result, the truth slowly gets buried under the shifting sand of the different storytellers who may or may not be telling the truth.
Meg Ryan gets high marks here as she has to play the same character as several different people. The pilot is seen in flashbacks (which total about 15 minutes of screen time), and the portrayal varies depending on what spin the storyteller is putting on it. Ryan’s credibility is same whether she’s playing the hero or the coward.
Layered on top of all this is Serling’s guilt at the friendly fire that killed his best friend. Hard liquor becomes the therapy of choice as Serling tries to forget his mistake while his conscience gnaws away at him and he drifts further and further from his family. The Army wants to hush-up the incident but a Washington Post reporter (Scott Glenn) and the parents of the dead man are asking more questions than Serling’s honor will allow him to dodge. Washington’s natural intensity manifests itself in piercing stares and soft-spoken threats as Serling’s desire to complete his investigation conflicts with the official denial of his own tragedy.
Like Clear and Present Danger, the film becomes somewhat of an indictment of the Washington establishment. Bronson Pinchot gives a cameo as an eager White House rep who’s pushing for the medal as he’s already planned out the ceremony to the last detail and promises that there “won’t be a dry eye in the house.” And Serling’s commanding officer is leaning on him to rubber stamp the award as he thinks Americans need something to feel good about.
But the details just don’t add up. Puzzling inconsistencies and mysterious circumstances layer themselves one by one over the events in question. By the end, The Truth has become almost another character. When it finally comes to the surface, it’s like that first breath of air to a drowning man.
A lot of Courage Under Fire is hard to watch. The combat sequences are unflinchingly realistic and the outstanding portrayal of the reality of war and the human reaction to it will make you wince. In this sense, it’s easy to draw comparisons to another outstanding war film – Platoon. And come Oscar time next year, there very well may be another aspect these two films have in common.