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 He is drinking, withdrawn and slowly unraveling.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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Glory (1989) A Tale of the American Civil War

When I first watched Glory it made my Top 10. Many movies later and after having seen it for the second time, it doesn’t make the Top 10 anymore but it is still one of the very best war movies ever. I would even argue it’s flawless. The acting is superior, cinematography is beautiful, score is great, themes are interesting. I suppose it’s accurate as well. It’s a 5/5 movie but… for me to really like or rather love a movie it needs to have something more than perfection, something like complexity. I decidedly have no problem with Matthew Broderick but I’m not very familiar with him. Some people criticized this choice because they saw him in other movies and thought he was too young at the time.

The movie tells the story of the 54th all black Union regiment led by Col Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). This is the first all black regiment ever. The whole regiment is composed of volunteers who are eager to join, train and eventually fight. It’s not easy to train these men, many of them are former slaves, runaways, analphabets and all in all an unwieldy bunch. Especially Private Trip (Denzel Washington) isn’t one who easily takes no for an answer. If Shaw wasn’t such a truly humane, kind and just leader and if he hadn’t the support of his friend Major Forbes and the ever so wise older soldier Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) maybe the whole enterprise would have been a failure. Luckily it isn’t or we wouldn’t have this highly watchable movie in which people can be seen how they overcome the worst adversity.

Shaw has to fight hard to earn recognition and justice for his men. They are lacking everything, shoes, uniforms, weapons and when finally they get their equipment and have undergone a successful training they lack the opportunity to show that they are worthy soldiers.

There are a lot of infuriating scenes in this movie, after all it deals with racism. Racism has many faces but at the end of the day, whatever face it has, it’s an ugly one.

It’s uplifting to see the suppressed overcome obstacles and all the more because it’s a true story. Glory is based on the letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (you can find them here Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw)

I haven’t seen many Civil War movies, I think only three so far. While I had a hard time to follow Gettysburg, I thoroughly enjoyed this one but the one I prefer is Ride with the Devil.

How about you? Any preferences?

Antwone Fisher (2002) or How One Man Was Saved by the Navy

Some movies don’t work for some people. This one did not work for me. If I hadn’t been so tired yesterday, I would never have promised a post. Maybe no one cares if I keep my promise. I don’t know, but I care. Just one little thing about the statement on the DVD cover “This is a film that can change people’s lives”. I agree. I slept incredibly well afterwards.

I am a bit sorry for being this sarcastic. Antwone Fisher tackles a topic we need to talk about, namely child abuse. If this movie manages to raise awareness, then I am sorry for my comments, but for me this was done in such an over-sentimental way… Insufferable.

Antwone Fisher is based on a true story. Antwone wrote the script himself.

Antwone (Derek Luke) was born in prison, shortly after his father had been shot dead by one of his girl-friends. The boy was taken away and given in foster care. A hellish place. He was beaten and abused. Sexually and psychologically. At 16 he is sent to a men’s shelter but he does not stay. He flees and joins the Navy. He likes it there a great deal but he has problems fitting in. He has what we term today “an Anger Management problem”. Lucky Antwone has a very kind superior officer and is sent to a Navy psychologist (Denzel Washington) with issues of his own. At first he won’t talk but then he opens up and has a real chance to heal. The psychologist urges him to find his family and in the end he does. During the sessions with the psychologist we hear the truly awful story.

There is also a love story involved. It is ok. I did not mind it as much as all the other corny details.

What is actually more interesting than the movie  – which is frankly a total failure what might explain why I hadn’t heard of it – is the extras on the disc. The real Antwone tells that the Navy was his first real home. It gave him a chance and opportunities to build up self-esteem and confidence. This is a picture of the Navy that we seldom get to see. At least over here in Europe where we are highly suspicious whenever anything to do with the American military is mentioned. It is still widely believed that the military is a place for those who have no other choice and where they might get worse than they already are. The film director is also interviewed and says that all the officers they met on the ships were kind and intelligent people and nothing like the abusive bastards we often get to see in movies.

All in all, thanks to the extras, this soppy movie has broadened my horizon a little bit.

One last element I would like to mention before finishing this post. Antwone is an African-American kid. His foster family is African-American and so is the psychologist. What the psychologist actually tells Antwone in the beginning is that the abusive behavior (the beating, not the sex) is an inheritance from the slavery days. It is passed on from one generation to the next. Rightly Antwone protests, saying that this sounded like an easy excuse. I believe, this is giving the wrong message. Child abuse is universal. Sadly it is extremely common everywhere.

I am glad for Antwone that he survived his childhood and became a very gentle and creative person. He writes poems, draws and, as already said, wrote the script himself.

Antwone Fisher

Friday Night Watching: Antwone Fisher (2002)

Until last week I had never heard of this movie before.

In order to be a 100% sure if Antwone Fisher is good or not I will have to watch it. And that is what I am going to do tonight. And hopefully I will post a review tomorrow.

A Soldier´s Story (1984) or Racism in the Military

The worst thing you can do, in this part of the country, is pay too much attention to the death of a negro under mysterious circumstances. (Colonel Nivens)

Norman Jewison´s movie A Soldier´s Story (1984) shows you what great acting can be.

It is one of Denzel Washigton´s first movies. Although he is not the leading actor you can already tell what he´s capable of. What is very obvious, that´he´s not only a movie actor but one hell of a good theater actor as well. The story is based on a theater play and almost the whole cast is from the original ensemble.

The movie takes place in a base in Louisiana during WWII.

Sgt. Waters, a black sergeant, is found dead and an army attorney is sent from Washington to investigate the murder. What no one suspects, least the white commanding officers, is the fact that the attorney is also Afro-American. The base which consists to a great extent of black Americans has never seen a black decorated officer before. They are awed whereas the white officers are outraged. It´s one of the best moments in this movie.

Soon it is obvious what a contradictory character the victim was. However the investigation is hindered by uncooperative officers and fearful soldiers. Bit by bit,shown through flashbacks, the victims true character and the actual events are revealed. The shocking truth is that the killed sergeant though African-American himself was a racist at heart and punished every act that he deemed unworthy of other black people, notably singing and dancing.In his own words:

You know the damage one ignorant Negro can do? We were in France in the first war; we’d won decorations. But the white boys had told all them French gals that we had tails. Then they found this ignorant colored soldier, paid him to tie a tail to his ass and run around half-naked, making monkey sounds. Put him on the big round table in the Cafe Napoleon, put a reed in his hand, crown on his head, blanket on his shoulders, and made him eat *bananas* in front of all them Frenchies. Oh, how the white boys danced that night… passed out leaflets with that boy’s picture on it. Called him Moonshine, King of the Monkeys. And when we slit his throat, you know that fool asked us what he had done wrong?

He was cruel, unjust and unfair. He wasn´t liked by neither white nor black soldiers and officers and really had it coming.

The character portraits in this movie are all extremely convincing, the acting is outstanding, the tale is gripping and it really doesn´t leave you untouched. This is a 100% convincing anti-racism movie and one of the few movies about racism in the military. A must-see.