Courage Under Fire
In 1991, millions of people tuned in to CNN to observe a real life and death drama played out in the cities and deserts of Iraq. For the United States, the war was more or less a display of power and a preservation of economic interest. Nobody was to ever hear of the mishaps and foul-ups of the war. In many eyes the war was seen as a chance to boost American spirit and make the government look empowered. Director Edward Zwick and writer Patrick Shane Duncan snatched onto this notion and expounded on it in their movie Courage Under Fire. Through its superb acting, successful plot, structure, and filming perfection, the movie becomes a powerful and brilliant examination of the consequences of guilt and responsibility, and the meaning of absolute truth.
Courage Under Fire was the first Gulf War movie to hit American theaters. It is a movie that steers clear of the typical type set of the war film genre. Movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now took us into the heart of the savagery of war and its torment upon the individual. Courage Under Fire contrasts greatly with these movies by showing that acts of valor do not necessarily result from the savageness of the battlefield. The real subject of the film is not a specific war, but the military ethos and its effect on many individuals.
The movie begins as many war films have, on the battlefield. Lieutenant Colonel Nat Serling (Denzel Washington) finds himself in an impossible situation, under heavy attack at night in the middle of the Iraqi desert. He is being assaulted by the Iraqis and in an instant loses his long time friend to the horror of “friendly fire.” He has ordered his crew to fire on another American tank under his command. Back home, the government is eagerly searching for Gulf War heroes and as a result, Serling is decorated for his bravery; yet, deep inside, he really knows that it is all a sham. He is drowned in his medals and awards and handed a desk job in the Pentagon, all to keep him quiet. Serling becomes intensely burdened by his guilt. He has become an alcoholic, his marriage is falling apart, and the government, which is covering up the incident, has not offered a means to assuage his battered conscience.
Serling’s very first assignment is to determine whether or not a female officer, Capitan Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) is a deserving posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, the government, as usual, is only looking to build its P.R. All that the government wants is a media showing. For them, the president handing the Medal of Honor to the Captain’s daughter, “wouldn’t leave a dry eye in the place.” Serling knows that this is all for show and commits himself to finding out the truth. I really loved this part of the movie. Zwick does such a great job of making the Government look pathetic by showing some of it’s underlying intentions in this war. This is what brings us away from the normality of most war films and places this movie into its own little subcategory. The movie was meant to be different and it succeeded in that endeavor. It really was one of the strengths of this film.
Instead of conducting a cursory investigation, Lieutenant Serling finds himself unavoidably drawn into Walden’s crew’s conflicting stories. Each crew member seems to give a different interpretation regarding the events that took place during the rescue mission that lead to the captain’s death. Serling begins to suspect a cover up and decides that he must delve deeper into this investigation. Throughout the movie, we learn of Walden’s heroism from numerous flashbacks of the same incident. Crewmembers including Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Illario (Matt Damon), each give conflicting details in their reports. The flashbacks each depict Walden differently and we, as the viewers, are supposed to figure out who the real Captain...
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