Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The biopics American Sniper and Unbroken have us thinking back on other true stories about soldiers.
Courage Under Fire opens with the kind of tasteful battlefield bombast often associated with director Edward Zwick, as Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) commands a tank during the first Gulf War. But after a disastrous friendly fire incident, Serling returns Stateside; his blunder is covered up, and he’s assigned to determine whether another soldier, Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), should receive a posthumous Medal Of Honor. The movie ostensibly focuses on what happened to Walden and her men as Serling starts to notice inconsistencies in the survivors’ stories, and much of the buzz around its 1996 release similarly emphasized Ryan, the romantic comedy queen, in a grittier and more dramatic role. But the true center of the movie is Serling, beautifully played by Washington.
Haunted by his mistakes, Serling nurses a drinking problem and obsesses over finding the truth about Walden; the role pits the innate decency Washington often summons against the demons of war. It’s not unlike his lauded role in Flight, although in some ways it’s even more internal. In several scenes opposite Lou Diamond Phillips, playing the most standoffish of Walden’s men, Washington responds to veiled and not-so-veiled threats with soft-voiced authority. He’s warmer but no less tough in a few scenes with an emaciated Matt Damon (in one of his earliest substantial roles).
Zwick is something of a forgotten Washington collaborator, but they worked together on three war-centric films, which tonally bridge the gap between Washington’s more socially conscious films with Spike Lee and his high-octane thrillers with Tony Scott. The director is better known for bigger-scale movies like Glory (his first movie with Washington) or The Last Samurai; the quieter Courage, though, is one of his best. It’s a square, solemn movie, but assembled with great efficiency, coming in under two hours, and handsomely shot by the great Roger Deakins. The investigative structure lends it weight, especially in the way it combines two soldier narratives into one: the soldier fallen in combat and the soldier coming home changed.
Availability: Courage Under Fire is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase from the major digital outlets.