Today is Memorial Day, a day to contemplate the military personnel who died in service to our country. Originally coined Decoration Day, shortly after the American Civil War, the last Monday in May remains an opportunity to express gratitude for those who make the ultimate sacrifice. Over the years, filmmakers have sought to document the conditions that plague American soldiers.
In the 1996 film “Courage Under Fire,” Denzel Washington plays Nat Serling, an Army officer who is haunted by a mistake he made in Operation Desert Storm that resulted in the death of one of his brothers in arms. Assigned to a desk job, Serling is chosen to determine if Karen Walden (played by Meg Ryan) deserves to posthumously win the Medal of Honor. If she receives it, Walden will become the first woman to win the award for combat. According to most accounts, she saved a helicopter that was shot down. While doing this, Captain Walden led her own men in a fight against Iraqis, but was killed in the battle. As Serling interviews soldiers who served under her, such as Staff Sergeant Monfriez (played by Lou Diamond Phillips) and the medic, Ilario (played by Matt Damon), he receives conflicting information about the day their Captain died. This makes it hard for him to decide if she is worthy of the award.
“Courage Under Fire” is directed by Edward Zwick, who creates many strong action scenes. One is a tank battle at the beginning of the film. Captain Walden’s story is seen through flashbacks. Zwick makes these flashbacks provocative as we see them through the differing perspectives of witnesses.
Denzel Washington is superb in the lead role. Haunted by his guilt for his actions in Desert Storm, he wants to get this right. Meg Ryan is equally impressive. Although best known for romantic comedies, she proves here that she is effective playing tough characters. Matt Damon also gives a great performance as Ilario. He lost a lot of weight for the role and looks alarmingly thin.
“Courage Under Fire” is a very good choice for Memorial Day.