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.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.