Courage Under Fire

on July 12, 1996 by Susan Lambert
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Modern American filmmakers are dying for one good old-fashioned war. In lieu of that, they'll take any kind of political military exercise and load it up with all the important issues of war that little boys like to explore. On the surface, "Courage Under Fire" confronts very volatile issues surrounding the Gulf War, including friendly fire and women in combat. But Director Ed Zwick ("Legends of the Fall") hasn't the courage of his convictions. His conflicting point-of-view allows the movie to muddle into mediocrity. He refuses to condemn anyone for their actions and then offers simple-minded, flag-waving solutions to complicated issues. He knows he's saying something significant--he just doesn't know what it is, exactly.
   The sharp-edged script by Patrick Sheane Duncan (" Mr. Holland's Opus ") offers a challenging structure, ala "Rashamon," to examine issues of courage and truth, but unfortunately the story is never fully realized. Denzel Washington gives a solid if uninspired performance as Lt. Colonel Serling, who is struggling with his own guilt over a monumental mistake he made in the Gulf. Back in the States, he is assigned to investigate and quickly sign off on a Medal of Honor claim for a dead Medavac pilot, Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), who would be the first woman to receive such an award. Serling's investigation gets complicated when he discovers discrepancies in each surviving soldier's story and realizes the top brass doesn't care to know the truth--they just want a tear-jerking, medal-awarding finale. Lou Diamond Phillips ("The First Power") gives a powerful, tight-lipped performance as the dissenting member of Walden's crew. And Ryan is credible despite her bushy movie-star hair. But Washington has to carry this film, and he can't quite decide how to play it. Unfortunately, the filmmakers cheat on him and the audience in an effort to sanction his character's actions. They have created a Hallmark Hall of Fame-like TV movie to praise the honor of the military, and they don't really care to explore much further not as long as they get that tear-jerking, medal-awarding finale they so made fun of early on in their film. Starring Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan and Lou Diamond Phillips. Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Patrick Sheane Duncan. Produced by John Davis, Joseph M. Singer and David T. Friendly. A Fox release. Drama. Rated R for war violence and language. Running time: 116 min
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