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"Courage Under Fire" review: Washington, Ryan shine in Rashomon-like war story

Courage Under Fire


Operation Desert Storm, the one conflict which was once considered a clear-cut triumph of American arms, didn’t inspire too many producers, screenwriters and directors to immortalize the First Persian Gulf War between the U.S. and Iraq on the silver screen.

Washington plays Lt. Col. Nat Sterling in Zwick's 1996 war drama "Courage Under Fire"
Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images

One rare exception is 1996’s “Courage Under Fire”, directed by Edward Zwick and starring Denzel Washington as a troubled Army officer who is assigned to investigate the candidacy of a female helicopter pilot for a posthumous Medal of Honor in recognition of her actions during Desert Storm.

The movie begins as a traditional “men in combat” movie, with a montage of news clips (derived from various news broadcasts) covering the run-up to the start of the war (January 17, 1991) and the beginning of the ground war (February 23, 1991, or G-Day) running under the title credits.

Lt. Col. Nathaniel Sterling (Washington) is the commanding officer of an armored battalion of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, a unit attached to the “heavy” VII Corps, the Army’s main body for the invasion of southern Iraq. Though this is not referred to in the movie, Sterling’s unit is one of those coalition forces which will make the famous “Hail Mary” end run around Saddam Hussein’s defensive lines in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and protect the Marines and Pan-Arab forces liberating Kuwait City from Saddam’s lavishly-equipped Republican Guard divisions.

When we first meet Sterling, he’s leading his men in a short pre-battle prayer/pep talk. Moments later it’s off to the war as he mounts his M1-A1 battle tank with his crew,

At first, everything goes well; the 2nd ACR’s tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles cross into Iraq from Saudi Arabia and easily crack through the Iraqi lines. But – as often happens in war – the Americans and Iraqi forces become hopelessly mixed in the dark od night, and Sterling, seeing a tank approaching his with what seems to be guns blazing, orders his gunner (Sean Astin) to fire on it.

The “enemy” tank is destroyed, but it wasn’t an Iraqi T-72…it was an M-1 commanded by Lt. Boylar (Tim Ransom), who’s killed along with his three fellow tank crewmen.

Col. Sterling is deeply affected by the “blue on blue” incident, and upon the 2nd ACR’s return to the States he is reassigned to a desk job in the Pentagon.

But the war is never far from his mind. At home with his wife (Regina Taylor) and two kids (Jamal A. Mays, Ashlee Jordan Pryor), he is often silent and stares off into the distance, haunted by the knowledge that a friend and fellow officer and his men died because of Sterling’s mistake.

Nathaniel Serling: Will there be a public statement of the facts when the Al Bathra investigation is over, sir?
General Hershberg: There's been a decision not to release any of these findings until every case has been thoroughly reviewed.
Nathaniel Serling: [pause] Well, how long do you imagine that will be, sir? I mean the next time I see Lieutenant Boylar's parents, I'd like to be able to tell them the whole truth.
General Hershberg: Do you want to know how many grieving parents I had to deal with during Vietnam?
Nathaniel Serling: With all due respect, sir, this is not Vietnam. Lieutenant Boylar's tank was hit by uranium-depleted shells. We're the only country in the world that uses them. We got these reporters from the Washington Post sniffing around his parents, looking for the truth, and the only person that knows the truth is not allowed to say it because these investigators are dragging their backsides. Someone has got to be accountable for this.
Nathaniel Serling: Sir.

Worse, his superior officer, Gen. Hershberg (Michael Moriarty) and an official from the White House (Bronson Pinchot) have assigned Nat to determine if the late Capt. Karen Emma Walden (Ryan) is truly eligible to earn the Medal of Honor for her actions during a disastrous combat search and rescue mission during the famous “100-Hour-War.”

For the Army and the White House, this investigation is a crucial PR job. The American public is quickly becoming disenchanted with the war even though the U.S.-led coalition liberated Kuwait, and Capt. Walden’s actions must be sans reproach because she would become the first woman to earn the Medal of Honor for conspicuous bravery in action against the enemy.

At first, the colonel’s job seems an open-and-shut case: Capt. Walden had attempted to rescue a downed U.S. helicopter’s surviving crew from an Iraqi tank and supporting infantry troops. Her Huey somehow manages to destroy the tank but is shot down (this was based partly on the 1993 Mogadishu “Black Hawk Down” incident) and Walden, her crew and the other U.S. soldiers fight it out with the Iraqis till a heavily escorted C-SAR team arrives shortly before Walden’s death.

But Sterling’s investigation becomes very tricky as each survivor of the incident tells his story.

The crew of the first downed helo, of course, gives Sterling a very enthusiastic appraisal of Walden’s bravery in battle, as do her co-pilot (Tim Guinee) and medic (Matt Damon).

Yet, there are quite a few issues that surface as Sterling interviews the various witnesses. The co-pilot praises his commander but was unconscious for most of the time after their Huey crashed, thus making his testimony nearly irrelevant.

Complicating matters even further are the untimely death of Walden’s crew chief Altmeyer (Seth Gilliam) and allegations by Staff Sergeant Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips) that Walden was a coward and did not perform well in combat.

My Take: It’s no secret that screenwriter Patrick Shean Duncan and director Edward Zwick (“Glory,” “The Siege”) deliberately used the “multiple points-of-view” technique used by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in 1950’s “Rashomon.”

For the most part, “Courage Under Fire” works very well as both a movie about the military and a serious drama intended for adult viewers who appreciate complex-yet-nuanced storytelling.

Washington, who is Zwick’s “Bobby DeNiro” because they have worked together often, is extremely believable as the duty-bound but intensely traumatized Gulf War veteran who is haunted by that fatal “blue on blue” incident when he was in battle. He is the very image of a professional Army officer – he wears the uniform as though he had been in the military all his adult life, and he never overacts in the scenes where we know he is fighting his own demons.

Ryan acquits herself well in a role which is strikingly different from those romantic comedy characters which made her a box-office draw in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

Yes, Ryan is still pretty and perky in a few scenes, especially one in which we see her in her Class A greens, but she manages to look and sound very soldier-like in the various flashback sequences.

Also impressive is Matt Damon, who lost 40 pounds to look convincing as the drug-addicted Corporal Illaro. He looks fit and normal in the “Iraq flashbacks” but appears emaciated and psychologically scarred in the post-Gulf War scenes where he is being interviewed by Sterling.

Phillips is also riveting as Monfriez, the one GI whose testimony can throw a monkey wrench in the plan to award Walden the Medal of Honor. He alternates between macho posturing, defiance and fear in the battle sequences, and he has various reasons for wanting Sterling to think that the dead pilot wasn’t the heroine everyone else is making her out to be.

Granted, no movie about the military is ever 100% accurate, and “Courage Under Fire” gets a few key things wrong, including using an armed Huey (Walden’s) as a “medevac” helicopter with Red Cross markings. In real life, medevacs are unarmed but are escorted by close-support aircraft and helicopter gunships.

Nevertheless, Zwick and Duncan (whose Vietnam War experience lends authenticity to his script’s portrayal of soldiers and their families) manage to give viewers an insightful look at war and the emotional aftereffects that even the most experienced professionals have to endure. Not as graphic as 1998’s "Saving Private Ryan," “Courage Under Fire” is still a very powerful and moving movie, even if it is far from being the definitive Desert Storm film.

Blu-ray Specifications:

  • Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Anamorphic, Color, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound, Subtitled
  • Language: English (Dolby TrueHD), French (Dolby Surround), Spanish (Dolby Surround)
  • Subtitles: French, Spanish
  • Dubbed: French, Spanish
  • Region: Region A/1
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: R (Restricted)
  • Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
  • DVD Release Date: January 23, 2007
  • Run Time: 116 minutes
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