Since this past weekend was Memorial Day, I went on a little bit of a war film kick. Most of the big ones I have covered, such as Saving Private Ryan (1998). One who has made somewhat of a career out of making movies focusing on the clash of cinematic armies is director Edward Zwick. He did many noteworthy ones like Glory (1989) and The Last Samurai (2003). Today, I am going to look at Courage Under Fire (1996), a piece that examines a different side of war, and how the tangled and confusing sequence of events that often occurs during battle can be remembered, misremembered, or forgotten completely.
Courage Under Fire is set during and immediately after the First Gulf War in 1991 when, during Operation Desert Storm, United States and Coalition forces liberated Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion initiated by Saddam Hussein. This is how we meet Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington), commander of a tank battalion leading the way against the Iraqi army. During their engagement, enemy tanks get confused with friendlies, and Serling’s own vehicle ends up destroying that of his friend’s, Captain Boylar (Tom Ransom), resulting in Boylar’s death. Months later and Serling is back in the United States working at the Pentagon when his commander, Brigadier General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), hands him a new assignment. Serling is to look into the events surrounding the posthumous nomination of Captain Karen Emma Walden (Meg Ryan) for the Medal of Honor. Doing so is seen as a way for Serling to redeem himself as he is haunted by the notion that he killed his friend. This manifests itself in his home life in not being to interact with his family, and he turns to alcohol to numb the pain. But, because he is a soldier, he sets off to look into the medal matter. The story that is first told comes from the survivors of a crashed Blackhawk helicopter that Walden, as the pilot of a rescue Huey helicopter, was tasked to assist. While en route, they manage to blow up an Iraqi tank but are shot down themselves. The two groups of survivors are never able to link up, but the ones from the Blackhawk are insistent that as everyone was being rescued they could hear the sound of an M-16 rifle. This becomes a crucial facet later. From there, Serling goes on to track down the remaining survivors of the Huey. The first is her co-pilot, Warrant Officer One A. Rady (Tim Guinee), who was injured in the crash and knocked out for the rest of the night before their retrieval. The next is the Huey medic, Specialist Andrew Ilario (Matt Damon), who paints a sketch of tough, ultra-heroic Walden making all the right decisions without hesitation, and heroically giving her life so that the others may get away. When Serling brings up the M-16, he says that it ran out of ammo before the rescue despite what the Blackhawk crew reported. Serling then turns to Staff Sergeant John Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), who gives a completely opposite depiction of Walden, one that also conflicts with his initial report. Monfriez’s Walden was cowardly, crying, and acting generally hysterical, leaving all the major decisions to him. He also says that the M-16 ran out of ammo during the night. While Serling is attempting to untangle what the White House sees as a cut and dried case, and great publicity as Walden would be the first woman to receive the Medal of Honor for combat, he is dealing with his own demons. They keep getting brought up by a reporter with the Washington Post named Tony Gartner (Scott Glenn). Initially, Serling wants nothing to do with the press, particularly since the official record of what happened during the tank battle is that Boylar died as a result of enemy fire. However, Gartner is able to ingratiate himself because he is a veteran himself and he is interested in the same thing Serling is: the truth. Serling wants Boylar’s family to know what actually happened, despite the difficulties, just like he wants to get what went on with Walden straight. His desire to do so, though, seems to conflict with the wishes of the White House, and they are putting pressure on Hershberg to wrap up the investigation. Serling remains determined to be thorough, and Hershberg decides to take the matter out of the Lieutenant Colonel’s hands. Undeterred, Serling continues to look into the matter, but faces new obstacles. For one, Serling is convinced the Monfriez is lying, but when he goes to confront the junior soldier on the matter Monfriez commits suicide by running his car into an oncoming train. His sole remaining link is Ilario, but he has gone Active Without Leave (AWOL). Luckily, he gave Serling clues during their interview as to where the young man could be found, and Ilario finally reveals the truth as to what happened with Walden. The real story is somewhere in between, but she died with the M-16 covering her crew’s retreat. Serling hands in his full report to Hershberg on the same day that Gartner is in the general’s office with a tape that exonerates Serling for his actions in the tank battle. Serling is then able to get closure with Boylar’s parents, and then return to his family with a sense of healing.
One of the more interesting aspects of Courage Under Fire is the search for truth. Serling feels slightly betrayed by the army for not being able to tell Boylar’s parents what actually occurred the night of the deadly battle. This is what motivates him to be as meticulous as he is in researching Walden’s prospective awarding of the Medal of Honor, even in the face of pressure from the highest political office. As a Catholic, I admire Serling sticking to his principles. The drinking to cope with the pain of his role in Boylar’s death is not great, but he finds a way of overcoming that too. The idea is that ultimately there is no hiding from the truth. The problem is that we so seldom are able to see it clearly. It is part of our fallen natures as humans. Only God can see the whole picture, a fact that we often forget. Our forgetfulness leads to pain, and then coping with that pain in unhealthy ways. Yes, I am talking from a Faith standpoint, but that is not off-base here given that Serling says a prayer with his men before going into battle. In the remorse he feels for personally commanding the tank that destroyed Boylar’s, Serling does not remember the actions he took after this unfortunate accident. With so many Iraqi tanks infiltrating their lines, he ordered the tanks under his command to turn on their running lights. Doing so allowed them to distinguish friend from foe, and thus saved the lives of many more men. Unfortunately, soldiers take the wounds they experience in war, particularly the emotional wounds, home with them, sometimes for years to come. Talking to God helps, though that is not what occurs in the film. In lieu of the Divine, it is people like Gartner and his wife that help him to know how he is honorable and loved. Restoring these feelings, and acknowledging God as their source, is something God wants for all of us. That is a higher truth.
Courage Under Fire is a solid film with a good message. Given that it rehashes the same events a few times, it may seem slightly repetitive. If you can put up with that aspect, though, you have a good treatise on the confusion of battle, the hasty decisions people sometimes make in the heat of the moment, and their consequences. There is some violence and swearing, but nothing so bothersome as to be distracting. Regardless, I would keep the kids away from this one. Another noteworthy aspect is Matt Damon’s performance. It is early on in his career, and you would hardly recognize the skinny kid in the film. Overall, you could do worse.