, Research Paper
Courage Under Fire
In 1991, millions of people tuned in to CNN to observe a real life and death drama played out in the cities and deserts of Iraq. For the United States, the war was more or less a display of power and a preservation of economic interest. Nobody was to ever hear of the mishaps and foul-ups of the war. In many eyes the war was seen as a chance to boost American spirit and make the government look empowered. Director Edward Zwick and writer Patrick Shane Duncan snatched onto this notion and expounded on it in their movie Courage Under Fire. Through its superb acting, successful plot, structure, and filming perfection, the movie becomes a powerful and brilliant examination of the consequences of guilt and responsibility, and the meaning of absolute truth.
Courage Under Fire was the first Gulf War movie to hit American theaters. It is a movie that steers clear of the typical type set of the war film genre. Movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now took us into the heart of the savagery of war and its torment upon the individual. Courage Under Fire contrasts greatly with these movies by showing that acts of valor do not necessarily result from the savageness of the battlefield. The real subject of the film is not a specific war, but the military ethos and its effect on many individuals.
The movie begins as many war films have, on the battlefield. Lieutenant Colonel Nat Serling (Denzel Washington) finds himself in an impossible situation, under heavy attack at night in the middle of the Iraqi desert. He is being assaulted by the Iraqis and in an instant loses his long time friend to the horror of friendly fire. He has ordered his crew to fire on another American tank under his command. Back home, the government is eagerly searching for Gulf War heroes and as a result, Serling is decorated for his bravery; yet, deep inside, he really knows that it is all a sham. He is drowned in his medals and awards and handed a desk job in the Pentagon, all to keep him quiet. Serling becomes intensely burdened by his guilt. He has become an alcoholic, his marriage is falling apart, and the government, which is covering up the incident, has not offered a means to assuage his battered conscience.
Serling s very first assignment is to determine whether or not a female officer, Capitan Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) is a deserving posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, the government, as usual, is only looking to build its P.R. All that the government wants is a media showing. For them, the president handing the Medal of Honor to the Captain s daughter, wouldn t leave a dry eye in the place. Serling knows that this is all for show and commits himself to finding out the truth. I really loved this part of the movie. Zwick does such a great job of making the Government look pathetic by showing some of it s underlying intentions in this war. This is what brings us away from the normality of most war films and places this movie into its own little subcategory. The movie was meant to be different and it succeeded in that endeavor. It really was one of the strengths of this film.
Instead of conducting a cursory investigation, Lieutenant Serling finds himself unavoidably drawn into Walden s crew s conflicting stories. Each crew member seems to give a different interpretation regarding the events that took place during the rescue mission that lead to the captain s death. Serling begins to suspect a cover up and decides that he must delve deeper into this investigation. Throughout the movie, we learn of Walden s heroism from numerous flashbacks of the same incident. Crewmembers including Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Illario (Matt Damon), each give conflicting details in their reports. The flashbacks each depict Walden differently and we, as the viewers, are supposed to figure out who the real Captain Walden is.
The film turns into a fascinating mystery mixed with the action of war. Serling confronts his superior, General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty) and, in one stellar line in the movie, makes it clear that he wants to find the truth. I think that in order to honor a soldier like Karen Walden, we have to tell the truth, General, about what happened over there. The whole hard cold truth. And until we do that, we dishonor her and every soldier who died, who gave their life for their country. Serling finds the truth despite the threats from the government and his own internal demons tearing at his soul. By finding the real Karen Walden, Serling becomes more at ease with himself. He learned that the measure of courage is not one s actions under fire, but how one deals with the repercussions resulting from those actions.
I am an avid movie watcher, and I often find myself tearing apart films as soon as I am finished watching them. Very rarely do I ever watch a movie a second time. It has to be that good. Courage Under Fire is just an exceptional movie. It is not one of those earth-shattering epic stories, where the world is saved from the perils of doom. The movie never really swells nor does it undulate from its goals. There are two stories brought forth, each with its own significance. One of the best qualities of the movie, and praise should be handed to the director for this, is that Serling s character conflict and the Walden situation are both seen as equals. It gives so much depth to the character that Denzel Washington plays as well as the rest of the stars of this movie, because we spend so much time figuring out who each character is.
Denzel Washington is in top form in this movie. Sterling is a tormented man with a noble heart who is caught in a whirlpool of political and emotional turmoil. Washington gives perfect texture to the character through his on screen strength. There was nothing to make the viewer cry or turn over in his or her seat, just plain old emotion. As Sterling lost control of his personal life, we as the viewers were able to feel his pain and anguish. I can do nothing, but applaud Washington s performance.
Meg Ryan also does a superb job. I have become so accustomed to her sweet girl, When Harry Met Sally typecast, that at first, I found it hard to grasp. However, as the movie progressed Ryan took on the almost impossible endeavor of playing multiple personalities of the same character. Excluding her somewhat fake southern accent, Ryan pulled it off. She showed more than enough emotion and certainly moved the audience. By the end of the movie, I was able to see Captain Walden as the true heroine is this film. She gave her life for her country. There is nothing more heroic than that.
This movie had a lot of strengths that never diminished as the movie unfolded. The acting, with the exception of Matt Damon, was terrific. He was by far the weakest member of the cast. As a heroine addict, his character was too frail and just not very effective. His story is supposed to be the truth and it becomes hard at the end to believe him because of his clear addiction and poor acting presence. Lou Diamond Phillips was also terrific. He portrayed a tough as nails character, but the viewers are always able see that hint of fear in his eyes, that something was tearing at his soul. It was a hard character to play and Phillips, who I have not always been a great fan of, was superb.
The plot also makes the movie. It pertains perfectly to the real world in that many individuals are tormented by the truth and by their actions. This movie showed the viewer how important it is to pursue one s goals and how good it feels to succeed. Sterling was able to finally over come his torment and make ease to his torn psyche.
Personally, I love war films. This movie was quite far from the typical war movies that have been produced. The overall majority have focused on the mental and physical barbarity of war. This film relates perfectly to the Gulf War because it was not really about saving people or fighting for a noble cause. The movie shows us that the Gulf War was in some ways a publicity stunt. The government needed to flex its powerful hands while keeping watch over their economic interests.
The movie s structure is quite different from all other war movies that I have seen. The use of flashbacks to tell the story is very original and at first quite entertaining. I did find myself becoming bored with the same scene being replayed over and over again, but I then realized that it was vital to the movie. The replays left us hanging each time because we still did not know whether or not they were the truth. By letting the audience try to make our own decisions the movie became even stronger.
Many movies have a cast and plot that are so good, that they can be filmed in the worst light and under the worst conditions and they will still be great. Courage Under Fire, has the working cast as well as the perfect plot and goes that next step with, perfection in filming. The movie is not a dark movie, but we often see Serling in dark settings. His inner demons make him an unhappy man and most every time we see him out of uniform, when he is at his worst, the scenery and lighting is dreary and cold. Whether it be the rainy streets or the confines of his hotel room or even the dark bar where he drinks his sorrows away, the setting and lighting was perfect. Ryan on the other hand is almost always depicted with a bright light on her face. Whether it was her graduation or even during the battle scenes, there was always a shining light somewhere around her character. See is seen as a powerful woman who the audience is supposed to hold close to their hearts.
There are many other aspects of the film that deserve praise. The editing was astoundingly perfect. The flashbacks meshed well with the movie and the organization of the plot and scenes was done flawlessly. The set was extensive, to say the least, with large battlefields and too many different locations to count. Each set was perfectly constructed and everything was realistic. Through this realism, the movie made sure that each individual watching the movie became engrossed in the storyline and the overall atmosphere. Movies that fail to do this are never taken seriously. The costumes and dialogue were also done without a flaw. Everybody looked as though they belonged in the movie and the uniforms all seemed as though they had been hand delivered by the U.S. Army. The music was a presence but certainly did not make or break the movie. It was just an average performance by James Horner.
Overall, this is a very strong movie that makes a powerful statement about the U.S. government and its actions during the Persian Gulf War. Courage Under Fire is an astoundingly intelligent and well-produced film. I would most certainly recommend this film to the mature and experienced moviegoer who is looking for something different in their viewing experience. It is a story about honor, bravery and the truth with a mystery nestled inside. Overall a 3 1/2 Star accomplishment!