Few figures in American movies are as familiar as the conspiracy-cracking investigator: the lone crusader journalist, prosecutor, detective out to cleanse the system of lies. He is also, by now, a rather predictable hero, all idealism and fire. Which is why I greatly enjoyed Denzel Washington's eloquently downbeat performance in Courage Under Fire, a large-scale military drama with a quiet, almost mournful center. Amid the action-toy fantasies of summer, the movie offers no-nonsense craftsmanship as a form of dramatic sobriety.
Washington plays Lieut. Col. Nathaniel Serling, an officer who returns from the Persian Gulf war in a daze of remorse. During a frenzied night battle, he gave an order that resulted in the friendly-fire death of several of his own men. Serling's superior officers want to cover up the incident, but his sense of personal responsibility has left him in a bitter funk, disgusted with the Army's PR tactics (the families of the victims have been lied to), drowning his guilt in booze. Now he's assigned to investigate the case of Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), a medevac pilot killed in action during the Gulf War; she has been chosen as the first woman candidate for the Medal of Honor. The White House badly wants her to receive the posthumous citation (it will seem ''progressive,'' and therefore politically savvy), and Serling has been put in charge of the case because of the vulnerability created by his own wartime gaffe. Essentially, he's been picked to rubber-stamp Karen Walden's valor.
Serling interviews each of the men who were under Walden's command, attempting to piece together what happened during the fateful battle, when her downed helicopter crew faced ambush by a platoon of enemy troops. From the get-go, the various versions don't mesh: We see the stories, one by one, in a series of vividly scary battle flashbacks, and in each case a different pattern of events emerges. Was Walden a figure of bravery or a lightweight unequipped for war? (She's accused by one man of crying.) When did a telltale M16 stop firing? And what of the other soldiers were they fearless fighters or hotheaded rebels? One of them, the surly, pumped-up Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips, looking like a hammerhead shark), may have been both a soldier's soldier who resented taking orders from a woman.
At first, Courage Under Fire looks like a Rashomon-style inquiry into the ambiguities of combat: the fog of violence and psychotic fear, and what it brings out in soldiers. Yet the movie turns out to be as morally cut-and-dried as A Few Good Men. Courage Under Fire takes its urgency mostly from the undercurrent of desperation in Denzel Washington's haunted, nearly implosive performance. More than a tormented idealist, his Serling has lost faith in the very possibility of honor. His guilt gets laid on a bit thick as the opening makes clear, the friendly-fire incident was all but unavoidable yet the most powerful element in the movie is the emotional pipeline that links Serling's spiritual redemption to the spectre of heroism in Karen Walden. He has to find honor somewhere; he needs it the way a thirsty man needs water.
Working from a script by Vietnam veteran Patrick Sheane Duncan, director Edward Zwick, who made one of the most stirring war films of recent years, the black-soldiers-in-the-Civil War drama Glory (1989), creates combat scenes full of mortar and noise and glaring sun. Jittery and unstable, the battlefield conflagrations in Courage Under Fire have been staged with an understanding of the way courageous actions can emerge from a landscape of hair-trigger chaos.
The rest of the movie could have used a bit more of that wrenching disorder. Zwick, who honed his craft creating the touchy-feely epiphanies of thirtysomething, has never let go of his middlebrow liberal coziness. Meg Ryan has a fine, edgy presence here, but it's hard to escape the feeling that her Karen Walden is being set up as a role model in much the same way the film accuses the Army of doing. The real enemy in Courage Under Fire turns out to be Zwick's eternal nemesis: macho insensitivity, and all that it breeds (arrogance, a hard heart, lies). The irony is that Zwick could launch this black-and-white indictment of military overkill by revisiting a conflict in which the moral lines seem muddier than ever. The true story of the spiffed-up-for-prime-time Gulf War the obfuscations about casualties, effectiveness of weapons, and so forth that are still emerging could make for a bracing tale of modern war. Courage Under Fire is just a melodrama done with prestige solemnity, though as melodramas go it's engrossing and fully felt. B+