Courage Under Fire [DVD]
Screenplay : Patrick Sheane Duncan (based on his own novel)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Denzel Washington (Lt. Colonel Nathaniel Serling), Meg Ryan (Captain Karen Walden), Lou Diamond Phillips (Monfriez), Michael Moriarty (General Hershberg), Matt Damon (Ilario), Bronson Pinchot (Bruno), Scott Glenn (Tony Gartner)
The surface story of Courage Under Fire is about an Army colonel investigating the merits of the first woman ever considered for the Medal of Honor for combat. But the underlying and more important story is about that colonel's fight to come to peace with himself.
The colonel is Nat Serling (Denzel Washington), and he is investigating the case of a female combat soldier named Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), who was killed while coming to the rescue of a downed helicopter during the 1991 Gulf War. He first gets the story from the men in the downed helicopter who say she saved their lives, even though her Huey was shot down in the process.
The mystery of the story is what happened after her helicopter was shot out of the sky by the Iraqi troops. Did she act bravely while surrounded by the enemy and give her life for the men under her command, like Ilario (Matt Damon) says? Or, was she a coward who doesn't deserve the medal, like Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips) says? And then there's a third eyewitness soldier, barely conscious from the pain of abdominal cancer, who still manages to utter a few incriminating sentences, before self-medicating himself into oblivion.
Of course, the government wants her to get the medal because it's a great public relations move, and they're willing to accept an unfinished report if that's what it takes. An eager White House staffer (Bronson Pinchot) is exuberant when describing to Serling how great it will be when the President puts the posthumous Medal of Honor around the neck of the deceased captain's little girl with hundreds of cameras recording the moment. "There're won't be a dry eye," he says confidently.
But Serling isn't interested in public relations. He wants the truth because he is haunted by the haze of truth and lies that surround his own mistakes. He also fought in Desert Storm, and during a particularly hectic battle at night, he mistakenly gave the order to fire on one of his own tanks, resulting in the death of an American soldier who also happened to be a close friend.
Six months later he is still consumed by that night in the desert, and it infests his nightmares, undermines his shaky marriage, and causes him to drink too much. He feels he could let the burden go if he could just talk to the parents of his deceased comrade and let them know what really happened, but the Army won't let him because the situation is still "under investigation." Serling is torn between telling the truth about his actions and obeying the commands of his superior, General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), who is also his friend. Of course, this is made all the worse by a wry Washington Post reporter (Scott Glenn) who is looking into the story.
Because Serling can't tell the truth about himself, he becomes determined to dig out the truth about Walden. His investigation continues to turn up conflicting stories, and the film depicts, Rashomon-style, variations of the fight in the Iraqi desert several different times, each according to the storyteller. Therefore, we see several scenes a number of times, but who did what, when, and why is often different. This could have been confusing, but director Edward Zwick, who has proved his ability to handle war scenes in Glory (1989) and Legends of the Fall (1994), works hard with cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, The Shawshank Redemption) to keep the action clear and concise.
The script by Patrick Sheane Duncan builds a steady pace and creates the conflicting accounts from logical extensions of the people telling them. Ilario is a nervous, chain-smoker who had never been in battle before, so his story is a little feeble and hazy. Monfriez is a gung-ho, cocky soldier, and his story is almost sure to be lies because he comes off as too much of a selfless hero. All this leads to a lot of high-minded talk about truth and honor, but the real impact of the story comes from Serling's battle with himself and how he uses this investigation in an attempt to heal his own wounds.
Denzel Washington turns in another great performance, although his hard-eyed, square jawed film persona has almost been worked into the ground. He's so good at being intense that I could never imagine him in a comedy or even a light drama. Although I have to applaud Meg Ryan for attempting to move beyond the When Harry Met Sally-Sleepless in Seattle rut, she never quite comes across as the soldier the movie wants to make her into. She looks appropriate enough, but whenever she speaks, she does it in such a low, scratchy-throated drawl that it sounds forced. Lou Diamond Phillips has the best performance in the film as Monfriez. Much of the mystery hinges on the truthfulness of his account and his unwillingness to cooperate, and like Washington, he plays a man at war with himself.
Unfortunately, although Courage Under Fire perplexes just enough to be engaging, it doesn't probe deep enough to be truly enthralling. Still, it's worthy entertainment that will also be remembered as the first war film to depict Desert Storm and one of the first films to truly accept the possibility of women combat soldiers.
|Courage Under Fire DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
DTS 5.1 Surround
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Languages||English (DTS, Dolby 5.1, 2.0) |
|Supplements|| Audio commentary with director Edward Zwick|
Three theatrical trailers
Three TV spots
|Distributor||20th Century Fox|
|Presented in a THX-certified anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, the image quality of Courage Under Fire is superb. Detail level is extremely high, even during the night sequences that are bathed in inky-blue darkness. Unlike some DVDs where dark scenes look too murky, here they are exquisitely rendered with excellent shadow detail and just the right level of brightness to convey the utter pitch-black of night without leaving the audience in the dark. On the other hand, the brightly lit daytime scenes in the searing desert are high in contrast, but avoid being too washed out. Roger Deakin's beautifully rendered cinematography is given its due.|
|This DVD offers three audio options: Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, DTS 5.1 surround, and Dolby 2.0 surround. Both of the 5.1-channel surround mixes are first-rate. The battle scenes are enveloping, with all five speakers working overtime to establish the hectic atmosphere of machine-gun fire coming from all sides, while the .1 LFE channel supplies just the right amount of thundering bass to give weight to the swirling helicopters and roaring tanks. The opening battle sequence is particularly memorable, with its thundering column of oncoming tanks and exploding shells. The DTS mix is slightly better than the Dolby Digital mix and also a bit louder, but only the most sensitive ear will be able to detect any noticeable difference. Either way, this DVD brings the battle scenes to vivid life without sacrificing quality in the more quiet, dialogue-oriented scenes.|
|Director Edward Zwick's screen-specific audio commentary isn't particularly energetic, but it is insightful and quite informative. It's hard to listen to in one long sitting, but it is works nicely if you're interesting in hearing what he has to say about particular scenes. He has a slow and deliberate speaking style, and he addresses multiple aspects of the film, especially Denzel Washington's acting (which isn't surprising considering that Washington has starred in three of the six feature films Zwick has directed). |
The six-minute featurette that is included doesn't offer much--some behind-the-scenes footage interspersed with brief interview sound bites from Zwick and several of the actors and technical personnel. The main complaint is that the featurette doesn't offer titles to inform us of who's talking. This isn't necessary when it's Denzel Washington or Meg Ryan, but there are several crew members who talk about special effects and equipment, and it would have been nice to know who they were.
The disc also contains three theatrical trailers presented in full-frame and 2.0, as well as three TV spots.
©1997, 2001 James Kendrick