Courage Under Fire is a thought-provoking Gulf War drama, examining the true nature of courage and honor. Denzel Washington portrays Lt. Colonel Nat Serling, who is instructed to investigate a Medal of Honor recipient, Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), the first woman to ever be nominated to receive the Medal of Honor for combat. Capt. Walden was a Huey pilot who died after being shot down in the process of rescuing another downed helicopter. The White House is pressuring for approval, regardless of the actual events, and Serling’s investigation is deemed a mere formality. However, it holds a deeper meaning for Serling. During the war, he was responsible for the friendly-fire death of a close friend. The military’s subsequent whitewash of events has left him jaded and disillusioned, and the treatment of Walden’s nomination process begins to pull him into drink and despair. However, he clings to the virtues that she represented, and pursues his investigation hoping to find that there is some substance to honor, and that it is not completely composed of lies and deception. Yet, his investigation hits a stumbling block when survivors of Capt. Walden’s team tell wildly different accounts of the events surrounding the incident. Denzel Washington gives a finely textured performance as the military man desperately groping for meaning, both in his own life and in his investigation. The film tackles some difficult issues, but Washington is able to convey the subtleties with a performance that ranks among his personal best. Meg Ryan tackles her change-of-pace role with gusto, and although she seems a bit too perky and cute at times to be the Captain described as “butch” by her crew, she nonetheless manages to bark her orders with authority when the time comes. Much of the rest of the cast seem flat, especially when compared to the well developed and superbly acted Lt. Col. Serling. Standouts in the remaining cast include Matt Damon and Lou Diamond Phillips as two members of Capt. Walden’s team with differing opinions about Walden, and Scott Glenn as an investigative reporter for the Washington Post who helps the reluctant Lt. Colonel sort through his personal trauma. Director Ed Zwick handles the transitioning between the two stories with competency, balancing the action of the war scenes with Serling’s own internal battles during his investigation. The final act gets a bit manipulative, but manages to do so without seeming contrived. Courage Under Fire, like the double meaning of its title, is subtle in ways, but is a powerful depiction of the meaning of courage.
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