'Courage Under Fire,' where mettle shines Denzel Washington looks for 'truth in the fray of a gulf war incident.

July 12, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Edward Zwick's "Courage Under Fire" has the taste of old wine in new bottles, except that the product in the shiny container is a virtue, not a beverage.

That virtue is courage and the movie can be seen, among its other meanings, as a celebration of the traditionally male thing of battlefield guts as it passes to the other gender -- in the form of a tough-as-nails chopper pilot played by Meg Ryan. During the Persian Gulf War, Ryan takes out an Iraqi tank, sets up a perimeter defense, shoots, kills, spits and curses like Sgt. Rock on a good day.

Or does she? Constructed as a postmortem investigation, the movie follows as Lt. Col. Nat Serling, brilliantly played by Denzel Washington, talks to witnesses and survivors of the firefight to determine if the late Capt. Karen Walden deserves to be the first female recipient of the Medal of Honor. Of course nothing is easy: Bush's White House, represented by an unctuous Bronson Pinchot, wants the medal for its PR value six months after the war. It would make a terrific photo op. So the political pressure is on Serling to rubber-stamp an earlier inquiry and get on with his career.

But as Serling digs, he encounters small discrepancies in the story between witnesses (another downed chopper crew a hill away) and the survivors of her air crew. The issue turns on an M-16 that was heard firing as the Iraqis closed in and the air crew abandoned its defensive position to make it to the MedEvac. Who was the mysterious shooter?

Serling has his own set of problems. An armored officer, he is himself the object of scrutiny from above and investigation from without over a friendly fire incident (in the confusion of night combat, he incinerated his executive officer's tank); he feels the weight of his own guilt exiling him from the military community. He turns to drink. He wants to do the right thing to redeem himself, for a crime of which he may not even be guilty but for which he feels enormous responsibility.

"Courage Under Fire" is basically an exercise in point of view as the tormented but ennobled Serling recounts the mission through the eyes of all the survivors. We see it replayed over and over again with slightly different emphasis: the crash, the long night on the ground, an Iraqi night probe, a larger daytime assault as ammo and fortitude run low. Each retelling reflects the personality of the teller.

The most compelling witness is a staff sergeant played by Lou Diamond Phillips, a pickled-in-salt NCO, who has no room in his leathery shred of heart for a female officer. As Phillips tells it, she panicked on the ground and only his professionalism got the tiny unit through the night. A medic -- Matt Damon -- represents the other side, and his account turns the dead officer into a paragon of heroism. But his account rings just as false. Clearly, something happened on the ground that nobody -- not even the Army brass and certainly not the White House -- wants to get out.

Zwick, who directed "Glory" and "Legends of the Fall" to varying degrees of success, does have a natural affinity for physical action and a deep passion for courage. The war sequences, which comprise most of the film, feel very real. For the non-cognoscente, let me point out that much of the drama on the ground revolves around possession of an instrument called a SAW as in "Gimme the SAW." "I ain't givin' you the W blankety-blank SAW." SAW is the acronym for Squad Automatic Weapon, a light machine gun in 5.56 mm that fires from 100-round belts encased in Tupperware. Remember, you read it here, courtesy of The Sun, and not in the New Yorker, which wouldn't know a hawk from a hand SAW.

Certain small ticks of inaccuracy seem annoying. I cannot for one second believe that Iraqi troops would stand and fight when, as the movie has it, a rescuing force of A-10s and Cobra gunships sweeps in on them. Those flyboys packed mega-heat in rocket pods and incredibly fast-firing Gatling guns and the Iraqi performance in the field was pitiful. Then there's the idiotic issue of the ubiquitous Capitol. Why does everyone in Hollywood believe that the U.S. Capitol can be seen from every single motel window in the greater Maryland-Virginia-D.C. area? Serling sets up shop in a motel in Bethesda, and there's the white dome outside his window!

Despite these irritations, it's Washington who holds the film together and gives it a moral center. He's the good professional: a man profoundly committed to duty, honor, country who perseveres even through his own personal crises and makes us feel not Serling's professionalism but also his humanity as well.

As for Ryan, she's not really in the movie. That is to say, she's dead when it starts and still dead when it ends: What we see of her is her performance on the ground, which is completely at the extremes of bravery and cowardice. She's more of an icon, a symbol of the new woman soldier, than she is a character. At the end, you feel that you owe her a salute, but that you never really got to know her. She's an action figure, not a person.

'Courage Under Fire'

Starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan

Directed by Edward Zwick

Released by 20th-Century Fox

Rated R (violence, profanity)

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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