Unlike Trainspotting, this film — the first Hollywood attempt to deal with the 1991 Persian Gulf War — features real heroes, opening it up to charges of being high-minded, sappy and, that old box-office bugaboo, principled. Screw the cynics. Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall) has directed one of the best and gutsiest films of this sorry year by trying to grab hold of the shifting ground of what defines bravery.
Denzel Washington is a potent actor in peak form as Lt. Col. Serling, a combat bat reduced to desk duty after mistakenly killing several of his own men in a midnight tank attack at Al Bathra. The Pentagon downplays the friendly fire incident, assigning the tormented Serling to the routine task of certifying that medevac pilot Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) is eligible for a posthumous Medal of Honor after saving her crew when the chopper she piloted was shot down.
Alienated from his wife (Regina Taylor) and kids, hounded by a Washington Post reporter (Scott Glenn) and drinking to dull his guilt, Serling conducts interviews for a routine case that begins to smell like a cover-up when three of the late pilot's crew tell Serling conflicting stories. Zwick and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan use Rashomon-like flashbacks as the medic Ilario (Matt Damon) paints a heroic view of Karen that is disputed by the sexist gunner Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), who sees her as a weepy coward. A third survivor, the hospitalized Altameyer (Seth Gilliam), speaks through a medicated haze.
Serling's superior, General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), is impatient. The White House wants a woman to get that medal pronto. In a strikingly effective scene, Hershberg emerges from behind his desk to face Serling as a friend. A general trained to be inhuman drops his guard before reverting to rigid, chilling form. Moriarty is outstanding in the role, finding dimensions and colors where lesser actors would revert to easy caricature.
Another standout is Phillips, currently the toast of Broadway in The King and I. Phillips' take on Monfriez as a study in banked fires helps to illuminate the mystery. Only Ryan's work is problematic. By necessity, the plot reduces her to a figure of other people's imaginations. It doesn't help that the script gives her Hallmark moments with her daughter and parents. Sentiment is a Zwick failing that also manifests itself in an ending that ties up things too neatly and sunnily for a story that perches most effectively on the brink of chaos. In Washington's haunted eyes, in the stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins (Fargo) that plunges into the mad flare of combat, in the plot that deftly turns a whodunit into a meditation on character and in Zwick's persistent questioning of authority, Courage Under Fire honors its subject and its audience.