“You see that man? You and he are brothers! He depends on you! You depend on him! You never leave a man behind!”
With the last decade plus of Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, there’s probably an entire generation who don’t even realise that the Iraq War of the new millennium was the second Iraq War of the last 20 odd years. The first Iraq War only lasted a short time and there was little in the way of graphic combat footage to fill new broadcasts. I guess there was also little in the way of Hollywood friendly spectacle as well, because there has been very little movie love given to the subject. And the only prestige, award nominated 90s Iraq movie I can think of, is Courage Under Fire.
After a friendly fire mishap sees his best friend dead, tank commander Nat Sterling (Denzel Washington) has his mistake swept under the rug and is put on desk duty. His first assignment is to investigate an incident involving helicopter pilot Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) and determine if she should be awarded the prestigious Medal of Honor. If so, she will be the first female soldier to ever receive the honor.
In a kind of Rashamon style, Sterling interviews the other men involved in the incident. Through soldiers Ilario (Matt Damon), Monfriez (Lou Diamond Philips) and Altameyer (Seth Gilliam), we get the story of the incident. Sent in to rescue survivors of a helicopter crash, Walden’s own helicopter is shot down and enemy forces begin to close in. With limited ammunition and communications equipment, survival becomes increasingly less likely.
Loosely based on the same story that would be told a lot more faithfully in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, it’s the loosely based nature that leads to the biggest disappointments in Courage Under Fire. It’s so preoccupied with making Nat Sterling a tortured, relatable character for us to cheer for, it never gets to the meat of the helicopter crash story. I know this is a movie about Nat Sterling, but by glossing over so much of the crash and its participants, it’s hard to get invested in Sterling’s search for the truth.
The other problem is the casting of Meg Ryan. In 1996, she was at the height of her reign as America’s movie sweetheart. I’m sure that’s exactly the reason that she took this role, to go against type and prove she had the acting chops to be a tough as nails, bad ass bitch who took no shit from no one. And her acting’s fine, but it takes more than affecting a southern drawl and calling guys, “asshoooollle” to turn a Hollywood sweetheart into a tough as nails, bad ass bitch who took no shit form no one.
Now, while I may have dedicated two paragraphs to these problems, the truth is, the good in Courage Under Fire more than outweighs those missteps. Washington, Damon and Philips are all fantastic in their roles, and when it does concentrate on either story, Sterling’s or the helicopter crash, for any length of time, it’s super engaging. I just wish it had chosen one of those as its central, driving story, and stuck to it. Instead of one amazing story, we get two kind of good ones.