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COURAGE UNDER FIRE

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips, Matt Damon, Michael Moriarty
Director: Edward Zwick
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English DTS 5.1, Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround
Video: Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: Director Commentary, Featurette, Trailers and TV Spots
Length: 117 Minutes
Release Date: December 26, 2000

Film ****

Edward Zwick’s Courage Under Fire is one of the most powerful, emotionally effective war movies ever made, and yet, the movie hardly ever finds itself on a battlefield. The film opens with a battle sequence, and there are numerous flashback scenes that include some war footage, but it is mostly a post-war drama. It was also the first Hollywood production to deal with the Gulf War, which would resurface three years later in another provocative war film, Three Kings. This film shows how fighting in a war can change soldiers’ perspectives, even while remaining on the call of duty.

Such a soldier is Lt. Col. Nat Serling, played to outstanding perfection by Denzel Washington who should have received an Oscar nomination. Serling is presently in a severely fallen state. On one of the last nights of the war, Serling, then a tank commander, lead his troops in an engagement against the Iraqis, and during the attack, mistook one of his own for an enemy tank. It resulted in the killing of not just a fellow soldier, but that of one of Serling’s closest friends. He has become a wreck ever since then, turning to alcohol, constantly having nightmares about the attack, and his marriage is starting to fall apart because of it. Even though the government agreed to cover up the entire incident, Serling’s conscience is near the breaking point. He is then handed an assignment that could keep him from falling apart.

Serling has been selected to head an inquiry in determining an awarding of the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor. It is a posthumous ceremony, and the recipient turns out to be the first female solider to ever be considered for the award. She is Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), a helicopter pilot who helped to save five soldiers’ lives by sacrificing her own in the midst of a chaotic gun battle, following the crash landing of her helicopter. Serling begins his investigation, and soon discovers some unusual differences in the stories he gets from his witnesses. He first questions Ilario (Matt Damon), Walden’s medic who entirely praises Walden’s actions in the field, and labels her as a brave solider. As Serling moves to his next eyewitness named Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), he gets an entirely different story. Monfriez claims that Walden was nothing but a coward, and afraid. His other key witness, Altameyer (Seth Gilliam), lies in a veteran’s hospital, unable to give Serling a clear answer, due to his frequent injections of painkillers.

Soon afterwards, Serling is informed by Washington that he will be removed from the investigation, simply because the government is becoming too impatient with the process of the investigation, Serling proceeds even further in his pursuit of the truth behind what happened between the crash landing and the exchanging of gunfire. Serling then confronts Monfriez in a scene that results in a twist so surprising and attention grabbing, I could have never predicted it. The truth is then soon revealed in a tense, somewhat majestic way, and the ending of the movie is very satisfying, in which all remaining characters acknowledge their mistakes and tragedies, both in the field, and off as well.

You couldn’t ask for a better cast of actors than the ones you get in Courage Under Fire. This is a triumph for both Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan. Washington is one actor who is incapable of a flawed performance, and his work here is right up there with his portrayals of Malcolm Shabazz and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Ryan has long been known for her outstanding work in numerous romantic comedies. Her performance in Courage Under Fire is very much a revelation and it shows that the actress is much capable of more than doing feel good comedies. She truly comes across as that of a tough-as-nails woman.

Director Edward Zwick and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan have succeeded in creating an emotionally involving account of modern war, and the hidden truth buried within the actions of soldiers who fought in the Gulf War. What Zwick did for the Civil War in Glory, he does powerfully and even more poetically for the Gulf War in Courage Under Fire, which is one of 1996’s greatest movies.

Video ****

Fox proved themselves as the top DVD distributors of 2000, and this release is more than perfect to close out their successful year. This anamorphically enhanced widescreen presentation is one of the studios best image transfers ever, as well as one of the best all-around transfers of the year. Image is completely clear, totally crisp, and absolutely free of grain or any color bleeding. Scenes in the desert are bright yellows, and scenes away from the war are given their own special treatment of image quality. Fox has performed a commendable act of duty with this release.

Audio ****

The same can be said for the wonderful audio job this disc has been served with. I don’t have a DTS sound system, so I am unable to give any comments on that sound quality, but I can certainly say that the 5.1 Dolby Digital track injects quite an impact from the movie, and is by far the best transfer of any war movie, other than The Thin Red Line, another Fox release. Everything from flying helicopters, whizzing bullets, and thunderous roaring tanks are picked up in digital perfection.

Features ***

Somewhat sub par when compared to some of Fox’s recent titles, but certainly nothing to complain about either. Featured on this disc is a commentary track by Edward Zwick, a behind the scenes documentary, and a collection of trailers and television ads for the film.

Summary:

If you’re looking for a hugely entertaining that is sure to touch your emotions and keep you guessing, look no further than Courage Under Fire. If you’ve never seen it before, you’re in for a big time treat, because watching it on DVD enhances the impact of the film, and then some.