"Courage Under Fire"
Opens: July 12, 1996 | Rated: R
Denzel Washington knows what he likes in a role -- thoughtful characters with unusual depth and a serious Achilles' heel. And he is the kind of actor movie buffs trust -- if he's in a film, it's probably worth seeing.
"Courage Under Fire" is such a movie, in which Washington plays Nathaniel Serling, an army Lieutenant Colonel investigating a medal of honor for a helicopter pilot killed in the Gulf War.
Pilot Karen Walden (Meg Ryan in a convincing departure role) is the first woman to be considered for the award and his superiors want him to quickly rubber stamp the medal for the sake of good publicity. But her crew's inconsistent stories, told though flashbacks, about how she died battling Iraqis after their chopper crashed in the desert compel him to dig deeper and find out what really happened.
The film is driven by Washington's remarkable, burning performance of a man submerging himself in his investigation to dodge the memory of a friendly fire incident that was his fault. As a tank commander in the war he destroyed another American tank in the smoke and confusion of battle.
"Courage Under Fire" opens with this fire fight and even though the dark battlefield and exploding shells are heart-stopping, the later flashback battle scenes involving Walden's downed crew are even more tense.
Because Walden's story is told differently by several Medevac grunts from her chopper, we see the same events several times, but the impact never wanes. This is war and director Ed Zwick lets us know it.
The accomplished director of "Legends of the Fall" and "Glory" (another project with Washington), Zwick always engulfs his viewers in the breadth of his stories without making them feel helpless to it.
As the characters recount the night the helicopter crashed, the tension and emotion becomes more real with each telling. But it's clear something is not quite right with their stories -- especially as told by Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), who insists Walden broke down when the going got tough.
Phillips turns in the best performance of his career as the only descentor in a crew that otherwise praises Walden's leadership.
A couple of these soldiers are given distracting metaphorical dialogue to break up the military jargon, which kills the flow in places. Some questionable script decisions, such as Ryan's baseless use of a southern accent, also give the audience occasional pause.
But other distractions add to the film. Scott Glenn plays a Washington Post reporter who badgers Serling over the friendly fire incident, and Serling's inner turmoil wreaks havoc on his marriage, both subplots help frame the military drama.
Despite Oscar-caliber turns from Washington and Phillips, and such emotionally charged and timely story lines, this kind of heavy-duty film is not likely to hold it's own against aliens and Eddie Murphy. Don't expect "Courage Under Fire" to be around for long.
The yawn-inspiring commercials won't help it's longevity either, but this is one movie that won't lose much to the small screen, so it wouldn't be a crime to wait for it on video.
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