Hollywood should thank George Bush for the war in Iraq. I think the wars there alone have provided no shortage of feature length films and documentaries – some them are even above average. Burn. The temptation is too great for most to politicize the war, no matter their political leanings. Instead of telling good stories we get messages blasted at us, most often times painfully simplistic messages that only serve the purpose to rally one side of the political aisle. Thankfully, Courage Under Fire does not fall into the trap.
Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) is in charge of an investigation to confirm Capt. Karen Walden’s (Meg Ryan) worthiness of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Serling is no stranger to these investigations, nor the medals. He was in Iraq leading a brigade of tanks which resulted in friendly fire that killed one of Serling’s close friends. The Army helped Serling see the truth in the matter and the potential problem disappeared. Except it didn’t disappear for Serling or the parents of the man who was killed. Serling couldn’t clear his conscience and the parents wanted straight answers about their son’s death.
The investigation seems rather clear cut at first. Serling interviews the men who were saved by Walden. They vouch for her heroics in saving their lives by valiantly fighting to the bitter end after Walden’s medic chopper went down and her crew was left between enemy forces and the troops who were saved. Not satisfied with rubber stamping his approval, Serling interviews each of the remaining members from Walden’s chopper. Whether its his own guilty conscience causing him to press harder for a full picture of the events that took place, or something else entirely, the Lt. Col. is on a mission to know the truth.
In between chasing down interviews, Serling displays signs of the effects his own wartime efforts have had on him. He hits the alcohol with abandon any chance he gets. His relationship with his wife and kids is nearly non-existent. When he is home he is only there physically. Nevertheless, Serling soldiers on with the investigation, deterring health, family life and all.
The investigation leads Serling down some strange paths. He meets two members of Walden’s crew from that fateful event and something doesn’t add up. Ilario (Matt Damon) and Monfriez (Lou Diamon Phillips) give signs that one or both of them is not telling the truth. Serling digs deeper and, at the same time, drinks heavier. To make matters worse, a news reporter is hounding the Lt. Col. for the truth about the events that haunt the man who can barely walk home after drinking at whatever bar is near by.
The storytelling is strong overall, with an engaging mystery carrying the plot forward. The re-enactments of the events in question make for a good mystery. Though, if anyone gets an award for worst southern accent of all time, it goes to Meg Ryan. Her fake southern drawl only gets worse when she yells orders at her troops or gets highly emotional. Terrible performance. Good thing everyone else rises to the occasion and gives solid performances all the way around.
The ending is a bit too nicely wrapped up for my tastes. The movie has a fairly dark tone throughout but the filmmakers must have sensed the mood needs to drastically make an uptick right at the end less people leave on a down note. At least they didn’t sense the need to hammer home points about the war, which would have ruined a very good film.