Films

Militantly maudlin

COURAGE UNDER FIRE Directed by Edward Zwick

JOE CHIDLEY July 15 1996
Films

Militantly maudlin

COURAGE UNDER FIRE Directed by Edward Zwick

JOE CHIDLEY July 15 1996

Militantly maudlin

A Gulf War drama pulls its political punches

COURAGE UNDER FIRE Directed by Edward Zwick

Films

Hollywood loves a war—and there are movies to go with just about every one. From the Second World War (The Longest Day, Patton) to Vietnam (The Green Berets, Apocalypse Now), and even to the dirty little invasion of Grenada (Heartbreak Ridge), the American military machine has inspired many a Hollywood epic—jingoistic propaganda along with masterpieces of irony. Oddly, Hollywood has shied away from the 1991 Gulf War—until now. Courage Under Fire is a glitzy, well-acted number, inspired by real cases of socalled friendly fire in Kuwait, in which U.S. troops killed their own men while knocking the daylights out of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqis. Despite a provocative premise, however, Courage Under Fire pulls its political punches.

The plot is elegantly contrived. During a night battle in Kuwait, Lt.-Col. Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington), an army-to-the-core tank commander, mistakenly gives the order to fire upon one of his own tanks. Cut to six months later, after the war, and army brass have hidden Serling away in a desk job in Washington. His new duties involve reviewing candidates for the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for bravery. Serling’s assignment: Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), an army pilot killed in Kuwait while allegedly sav-

ing the lives of a downed helicopter crew. But as Serling interviews Walden’s men, conflicting accounts emerge, recalled through a series of flashbacks. Her medic (Matt Damon) says Walden was an angel of courage, but to the trigger-happy Sgt. Montriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), she was a cringing coward. Serling, still wracked by guilt over his Gulf War blunder, struggles to discover the truth not only about Walden, but also about himself.

The dual plots result in a tightly structured, but often tedious, film. Washington manages a fine performance, but Ryan, in a departure from the romantic comedies (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle) for which she has become known, has little more than a bit part.

The main problem with the movie, however, is one that recalls the Gulf War itself—Hussein’s putative “mother of all battles” that turned out to be a cakewalk for allied forces. Once all the facts are revealed, the movie’s central conflicts turn out to be less compelling than they were cracked up to be. Having little real drama to work with, director Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall) wraps the denouement in a saccharine coating of tears and gushy ruminations on bravery and integrity. And Courage Under Fire ultimately remains on safe ground—in the demilitarized zone of sentimentality.

JOE CHIDLEY