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Every time Denzel Washington dons a military uniform you know you're in for a damn good movie. The actor has done some of his best work playing soldiers: He earned his motion-picture acting stripes with an outstanding supporting performance in 1984's A Soldier's Story, distinguished himself in combat alongside Morgan Freeman in 1989's Glory, and gave no quarter to grizzled old veteran Gene Hackman in last year's Crimson Tide. Washington's heroics in each of those military movies garnered commendations from critics. But his commanding turn in Courage Under Fire merits the Hollywood equivalent of the Medal of Honor. Those few remaining skeptics who doubt Washington's prowess may as well surrender; the actor proves his mettle as the haunted, hard-drinking Gulf War tank commander-turned-desk-jockey Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling. The role demonstrates not only that Washington can act -- a fact he established long ago -- but that he possesses that extra something that separates movie actors from movie stars.
In the heat of a midnight battle in the Iraqi desert at Al Bathra, Lieutenant Colonel Serling gives the order to fire upon what he and his men believe to be an enemy tank. Serling's crewmates chortle with jubilation when they score a direct hit, blowing their target to smithereens. But their celebration immediately turns to shock when the colonel learns over his radio that the vehicle he has just obliterated was one of his own -- commanded by his best friend, no less. Shortly thereafter, the Army reassigns Serling to paper-pushing purgatory in the awards and decorations division of the Pentagon pending the outcome of an internal investigation into the friendly fire incident. Haunted by the mishap, Serling grows distant from his loving family and seeks refuge in the bottle. A less versatile actor might have played Serling one dimensionally here, going impenetrably stoic for example or sliding into a pit of self pity. But Washington lets the audience in on every little shade of anger, self-recrimination, confusion, pride and hurt. Like a real human being in other words. You can't help but root for him.
To add insult to injury, Serling gets handed the task of reviewing the posthumous candidacy of medevac chopper pilot Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) for a Medal of Honor -- which, if awarded, will make her the first female recipient of that tribute. Ryan's performance doesn't warrant any accolades; she's hopelessly miscast as the butch chopper jockey. Goldie Hawn commanded more respect as Private Benjamin. Angela Bassett, Jodie Foster, Linda Hamilton -- any of a dozen actresses would have been more believable in the role. Ryan's sorority sister cuteness completely undermines her credibility as a gunslinging war hero, and threatens to do the same for the entire movie. The filmmakers seem to realize this; they wisely minimize her screen time in an effort to exercise damage control.
The White House, via General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), Serling's superior officer and mentor, pressures the colonel to expedite his inquiry and rubber-stamp his approval of Captain Walden's candidacy. But, as if he doesn't have enough problems, Serling uncovers troubling inconsistencies in the stories of Walden's surviving crew members. Screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan (Mr. Holland's Opus) lifts the conflicting-versions-of-the-same-incident story structure from Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon; each of Captain Walden's chopper mates offers a different recollection of the captain's actions during her final rescue mission. Serling senses a coverup and refuses to file an incomplete report. The White House gets antsy. General Hershberg plays hardball. Washington Post reporter Tony Gartner (Scott Glenn) starts poking around. The race is on: Can Lieutenant Colonel Serling uncover the truth about Captain Walden and preserve his own honor before the White House and his own commanding officer turn on him?
Well, of course he can. He's Denzel Washington, after all. Raising more doubts about Serling's battlefield decision-making and Captain Walden's valor (or lack thereof) would have made this a far more interesting and realistic film, but the filmmakers aren't up to the challenge. Nor do they have any interest in exploring some of the more troubling questions raised by U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf War. Did we need to slaughter so many Iraqi civilians? How could we have so drastically overestimated the strength of our foe? And, most important, why the hell didn't we roll straight into Baghdad and kill or capture Saddam Hussein when we had the chance? The makers of Courage Under Fire don't have the guts -- or the curiosity -- to address any of those issues. Instead they bury their heads in the sand of was-she-or-wasn't-she-a-hero.
Even then, they take no chances. Despite his drinking and his nightmares and the runaround he gets from Captain Walden's surviving comrades, you just know from the determined cut of his jaw and the way he meticulously steam-irons his uniform every night that eventually Serling will get to the bottom of both his case and hers, and that when he does, both he and Captain Walden will be vindicated. Neither screenwriter Duncan nor director Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall) leaves any room for ambiguity; both men are plodders whose straight-ahead, cliche-ridden work has benefitted handsomely from their leading actors' bravura performances. Courage Under Fire holds true to that pattern. Denzel Washington -- and, to a lesser extent, Lou Diamond Phillips and Matt Damon as the troubled soldiers who harbor the terrible secret of What Really Happened Out There -- bails out this by-the-numbers military melodrama just as Richard Dreyfuss's histrionics nearly rescued Mr. Holland's Opus and the Washington-Freeman tandem powered Glory.
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