Courage Under Fire (1996)

I have seen at least six of Edward Zwick’s movies (Glory, Legends of the Fall, Last SamuraiBlood Diamond and Defiance) and was only disappointed once when I watched Defiance. Courage Under Fire may not be the best but I still liked watching and re-watching it. For one it’s one of the very rare war movies with a female main character but it also tells a suspenseful and quite complex story. It may not be anti-war as such but manages to make us understand a few things. Last but not least I tend to watch every movie with Denzel Washington. Zwick has worked with him before, notably in Glory which is one of the most outstanding war movies you can watch.

Colonel Sterling (Denzel Washington) is asked to investigate whether chopper pilot K. Walden (Meg Ryan) who was killed in action was worthy of a medal of honour. The assignment is Sterling’s second chance, an opportunity to rehabilitate himself. Ever since he came back from Iraq where he took part in Desert Storm, he has changed. He is drinking, withdrawn and slowly unraveling. He cannot forgive himself that due to his order a friendly tank was blown up. Far less can he accept that the event is not called what it was and that he had to lie to the parents of one of the crew and tell them their son died as a hero under enemy fire.

As a first step in the investigation of officer Walden’s worthiness he questions the crew her chopper came to rescue before it was shot down. The men tell what they heard, they didn’t see a lot. Walden’s huey and her crew went down between those they came to rescue and the enemy. They took all of the fire during the night and in the early morning.  The men remember having heard a M16 until just before both parties were rescued by another chopper.

At this point in time, Sterling doesn’t know that Walden is not only a heroic soldier but that Walden is a woman and would be the first woman to ever receive a medal of honour. After having questioned the rescued crew he has to interrogate Walden’s crew members one by one. Her co-pilot is in a wheel chair, he was seriously wounded and cannot remember what happened on the ground. Ilario the medic (Matt Damon), parises Karen and her decision making but Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), an angry, aggressive soldier, tells him that Walden was a coward.

The whole story is revealed layer by layer and in flash backs. We see what happened from different points of view and after a while it is clear someone is lying. It will be Sterling’s duty to find out whether she was a coward as some say or a hero deserving of the highest decoration.

The movie interweaves two stories, the investigation of Karen Walden and Sterling’s fight to come to terms with what happened in Iraq.

I liked the way the movie showed how different points of view change a story, how there may be more than one truth. Despite the fact that some of her crew lied, they still all saw different aspects of how it happened. It’s not a court-room drama but it has elements of it and is quite suspenseful.

One of the main topics however is women in the military. When Sterling hears that the medal of honour is destined for a woman we see that he has a problem. The idea is so new and strange to him that he has a hard time to absorb it at first. On the other hand, because the medal is destined for a woman, his superiors hope this is an opportunity to get as much positive media coverage as possible and would give it to her whether she deserved it or not.

The actors are good but that is to a large extent due to the characters. They are all interesting, very well-developed characters. What I liked a lot is the way the movie is structured. The changing between action- and dialogue sequences and more introspective moments. It’s a very balanced movie. The message is another story. It’s not an anti-war film. It is about people who love being in the military, who find the life as a soldier or pilot the most fascinating there is. People who put duty and honor before their family but still struggle to find a balance.

I think it’s very well done, entertaining and certainly a must for all the Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan and Matt Damon fans and those who appreciate the solid work of Edward Zwick.

Here are some of my reviews of other movies by Edward Zwick

Glory

Last Samurai

Defiance

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