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Pretty much as a rule, summer flicks tend to lean towards action and fantasy, while heavy duty dramas are usually saved for the November/December Oscar wanna-be race. Then again, when a drama is as solidly built as Courage under Fire, a summer release gives it all the more time to sit in theaters and build momentum.
This is a mother of a drama.
Denzel Washington is Lt. Colonel Nathaniel Serling, a medal winner as a tank commander in the Gulf War, at the center of an Army investigation (meaning: coverup) into a friendly fire incident. In the heat of tank battle, Serling gave the order and accidentally killed one of his own troops. He lied to the parents at the funeral. He is ducking a Washington Post reporter (Scott Glenn) who smells the story. He is wracked with guilt for his actions.
Buried in the Pentagon, Serling is assigned to investigate the case of another casualty in battle, Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), a Medivac helicopter pilot. Giving the Medal of Honor to this soldier has got all the politicos inside the beltway foaming at the mouth. Walden would be the first woman to receive the medal for combat. She leaves behind a 7-year-old daughter whose neck the President will hang the medal around. It's a photo op made in heaven. Literally.
The catch is this: the stories told by the witnesses to the events don't jibe. She may have been a true hero. She may have been a sniveling coward, ready to surrender at the first opportunity. Or she may have been something . . .else. Serling has got his Army superiors and the politicos from the White House (Bronson Pinchot!!) on his back to rubber stamp the award. But to give Walden the medal IF she didn't deserve it would dishonor his seventeen-year commitment to his country, dishonor the meaning of the medal and, more importantly (to him), dishonor the memory of the men killed by his friendly fire order.
And that's all I'll tell you. Courage Under Fire is rock solid, deeply layered storytelling. As you see the same story from three different sets of eyes, identical movie scenes play out with radically different emotional overtones. This kind of storytelling is almost a genre in itself, and it all dates back to Akira Kurosawa's film masterpiece called Rashoman. Meg Ryan has to deliver three different performances, yet still convince the audience that anyone of these aspects could be the true one. Indeed, they all could be true.
To a lesser extent the supporting characters have to deliver similar shades, and they do too. Of note is the performance of Lou Diamond Phillips as Monfriez, whose story is at the core of the mystery. Even if you figure it out in advance, your attention will be riveted to the screen just to make sure you got it right. Director Edward Zwick has put together an emotionally charged, visually tough movie based on an original story by Patrick Sheane Duncan. Everything about this film clicks.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for Courage Under Fire, he would have paid . . .
Film. Director. Actor. Actress. Supporting Actor. Screenplay. Courage Under Fire has Oscar® written all over it.
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