COURAGE UNDER FIRE ***
Vietnam veteran Patrick Sheane Duncan is the writer-director of the excellent Vietnam film "84 Charlie Mopic," produced and wrote several episodes of HBO's "Vietnam War Story," co-wrote and directed the documentary series "Medal of Honor." He has other credits too, including the script of "Mr. Holland."
"Courage" is a fine film, although I wonder whether or not it will remain in our memories. Few movies, even good ones, do, for complex reasons. In "Courage," Denzel Washington plays tank commander Lt. Col. Serling who, during the Gulf War, leads his men in a night attack. The men are very macho, slightly Hollywoodized. The Allied Coalition is not referred to--granted that this war was led by the US. This was my passing thought as, somehow, I remembered "Objective Burma" which had the Brits howling that in their very own theater of war, Errol Flynn and Co. were depicted as the major fighters!
Just nit-picking. Another nit is that in the thick of a well-shot and choreographed battle, we see Arabs on camels improbably taking in the sights from atop a high sand dune. My last nit is that our soldiers speak of Ay-rabs and Eye-raqis, the way GIs said Eye-talians in WWII.
During the fray's confusion, the Colonel gives an order that results in the death of one his friends. Friendly fire has always been one of the tragedies of combat -- and seldom mentioned in movies.
Cut to the post-Gulf Pentagon where Serling, though exonerated, drags the burden of a terribly guilty conscience. His superior, General Hershberg, orders him to review the case of Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), a Medevac pilot posthumously nominated for the Medal of Honor for her "courage under fire." A female soldier so honored is a first, one that reflects on the new army and public relations. It is also press and political fodder as well as vote-getting from feminists. (An obnoxiously opportunistic White House staffer seems to rejoice at all this).
Serling is expected to produce a quick rubber-stamp for the nomination, but, taking his job seriously (doubly so because of his own trauma), he investigates conscientiously among the survivors of the Captain's crew-- and keeps running into inconsistencies, gaps and contradictions.
The situation has been compared to that of the famous "Rashomon" You can see why, yet the connection is tenuous. In the Japanese classic four unconnected people told different stories of the same event because of different perceptions and memories. In "Courage," it is the interpretations that are different, for reasons I will not reveal. All the while, flashbacks illustrate the many faces of Capt. Walden, each one as told by a different interviewee. (It's of course a good old device. See "Citizen Kane" for its best illustration).
Denzel Washington is more than a star. He is one of our top actors and in his unassuming ways, a screen presence. His facial and body expressions fill very well a small but powerful range of feelings: private pain, a deep belief in the honor of the Army, a dedication to truth. Even when almost commanded to drop the investigation, Serling remains like a quiet bulldog that won't let go. His methods are simple, both logical and intuitive, efficacious. Although he is no Hercule Poirot or Lieutenant Columbo, he has Columbo's double-checking mindset. When, like Peter Falk, he says casually: "OK. One more question," you can see that he is on to a new clue.
There are moments of highly-charged emotion, yet on the whole the film does not come through as really engaging or affecting. I can't tell exactly why on a single viewing, but I believe that this is caused by the movie's very polish and high production values, the neat, predictable outcome, and the ambitious editing that zig-zags more than necessary.
Would-be impassive yet warm Denzel Washington carries the movie with the help of Matt Damon who excels in a nuanced role stretching from jocular and naive to tortured soul. Lou Diamond Phillips has a melodramatic, over-the-top but effective part. The acting by most others is, at a minimum, competent. Reviewers have split into I-hate-Ryan and Ryan-is-great camps. Again, after just one screening I can't really take sides but my impression of Meg Ryan was that she did all that was expected of her.
In spite of people lying to, and authorities leaning on Serling, this is a decent picture in the moral sense. Essentially it is the story of a suffering man, of a woman he never met, and of convincingly shown reactions of soldiers under extreme pressures. The battlefield events are well-handled, done with technical virtuosity but without gung-ho heroics or graphic and gratuitous violence. The political and the women-in-arms aspects are incidental. At the same time, there is a solid subtext that could bear the title of a famous 19th Century French book :"Military Grandeur and Servitude."