With the exception, maybe, of Oliver Stone, no current American director is as adept at staging battle scenes as Edward Zwick--the engagements in his Glory had a speed and terror that could make you gasp.
Battle scenes also figure importantly in Zwick's new film, Courage Under Fire, the first major American movie to deal seriously with the Persian Gulf War. Shot in diamond-hard tones by the fine cinematographer Roger Deakins, they're the strongest elements of this earnest tale. The home-front scenes, however--the bulk of the film--are shot in luminescent colors. Deakins bathes them in a prestige-movie glow.
Regrettably, Zwick does the same to the drama. Perhaps to avoid alienating a vocal segment of the film's potential audience and supporters--the military and military buffs--Zwick, working from a script by Patrick Sheane Duncan, keeps a reverential and sober attitude toward military notions of glory.
He seems to want to keep the picture's real subject muted until the last possible moment. Regrettable, because that real subject is one of the most provocative military issues of the century and, if fully engaged, could have made Zwick's pretty good film a modern masterpiece of war cinema.
The central character is an Army colonel (Denzel Washington), a tank commander who makes an honest mistake on the battlefield with horrible consequences. After the war, he's sent back to the Pentagon and given a desk job, which quite insensitively turns out to be investigating a candidate for a posthumous Medal of Honor. As in Rashomon, the colonel hears, and we see, conflicting accounts from the crew of an evac helicopter of the story of how its captain saved another downed helicopter crew from an Iraqi attack.
The colonel probes the story further--he's in agony over his own tragic slip, so he's desperate for, as he puts it, "somebody to be a hero." He's rooting for the captain. His probings give rise to turbulent melodrama. One of his witnesses even plays an unsuccessful round of chicken with an oncoming freight train.
What makes the captain's candidacy politically important is that the captain is a woman (Meg Ryan). She's to be the first woman ever awarded the medal for valor in combat, and the White House is fairly drooling over the photo-op potential of her young daughter (she was a single mother, no less) receiving the award from the president.
Gradually, as if Zwick were reluctant to admit it, the real subject of Courage Under Fire becomes clear--attitudes toward women in combat. We and the colonel begin to grasp that something terrible happened between the captain and her crew after their helicopter crashed and they were stranded overnight in the desert, and that this terrible something had to do with gender.
Confined as she is to (differing) flashbacks, Ryan is a rather ghostly presence here, but she brings a likability as well as an authoritative bark to the role of the captain. Washington has the larger job of carrying the plot forward while keeping us aware of his own pain all the while, and he underplays superbly. This is no mean feat in a Zwick film--if a character is hiding a guilty secret, Zwick directs the actor to play it so jittery and pale that he looks like he's suffering from radiation sickness.
Two of the minor characters are refreshingly handled. Bronson Pinchot plays an overeager White House aide, and we think, uh-oh, it's the Sniveling Officious Bureaucrat, in the picture only to be punched out by the hero. But the character is dropped before he rates anything harsher than a cold shoulder. Scott Glenn plays a Washington Post reporter looking into the colonel's case. As soon as we hear the name Washington Post, we think we're being set up to hiss the Insufferable Liberal Busybody, but the reporter turns out to be a good guy, although the film pointedly emphasizes that he's a Vietnam vet, so that we'll know he's one of the boys. If he weren't, he wouldn't be allowed an opinion.
Courage Under Fire was made for the boys. It's a men's picture in style, and even in content--the only dynamic and potentially threatening woman in the story is kept at a safe distance, dead, in fact. But Zwick ultimately avoids the usual men's-movie evasions--he won't let her spirit move on until he's given her her due. The title Courage Under Fire has a queasily generic ring to it; at film's end, you realize the highest praise it could receive is that this title really describes, in more than one sense, what the film's about.
--M. V. Moorhead
Courage Under Fire:
Directed by Edward Zwick; with Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips, Michael Moriarty, Scott Glen and Bronson Pinchot.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.