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A Gulf War Rashomon with Washington and Ryan
on 14 July 2004
The basic plot line of "Courage Under Fire" is that Lt. Col Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) is investigating an incident during the Gulf War to determine whether or not the Medal of Honor should be awarded posthumously to Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan). It does not take us long to find out that the title of this film refers to both Serling and Walden. The initial story on Walden, the pilot of a rescue helicopter, is that she made a spectacular rescue of a downed helicopter crew, then fought off attacking Iraquis after her own copter crashed, dying right before the besieged group was rescued. But as Serling questions the surviving members of Walden's crew, he discovers their various versions do not jive, and he begins to question what is the truth of what really happened. Moreover, Serling is haunted by his own actions during the Gulf War, where he was responsible for a "friendly fire" incident that resulted in the death of American soldiers. To complicate matters even more, Serling is drinking way too much, has grown distant from his family, and is being hounded by both a commanding officer (Michael Moriarity) who wants the P.R. value of Walden being the first woman to receive the Medal of Honor and a reporter (Scott Glenn) who knows something of what happened to the Colonel in Iraq and wants to know the rest.
"Courage Under Fire" makes excellent use of the "Rashomon" technique, wherein we get to see each person's version of what really happened in Iraq. Serling's own feelings of guilt and responsibility for what happened in Iraq provide an additional level of depth to the narrative (more so than in Kurosawa's original classic film in fact). Some may find the parallel attempts to find redemption to be somewhat heavy handed, but ultimately the film succeeds because of the solid acting performances. In addition to Washington and Ryan, who never have a scene together, there are solid performances from Lou Diamond Phillips and a very underweight Matt Damon as surviving members of Walden's crew, Michael Moriarity as the General, Scott Glenn as the reporter, and Regina Taylor as Serling's wife. Certainly this film is closer to the reality of Desert Storm than "Three Kings," but the main enjoyment here is watching Ryan and her crew do the same lines with totally different meanings because of radical changes in context while Washington tries to find meaning in his own life.