'Courage Under Fire' Digs for Truth In a Kaleidoscope of Spins and Slants

Thoughtful war drama follows a string of vacuous blockbusters

I recently heard a radio commentator give a self-righteous sermon about how this summer's Hollywood blockbusters are getting stupider as they go along. In fact, it's almost the opposite.

The season started with "Twister," which has a story so thin its dizzying special effects hardly seem connected with the human race, and continued with "Mission: Impossible," which has plenty of plot but never finds the time to clarify what it all means. Then came "The Phantom," even flimsier than the comic strip it's based on, and "The Cable Guy," with Jim Carrey spinning nearly out of control in a dubious attempt to broaden his image. "Eraser" is just an excuse for lots of violence and wisecracking.

Newer arrivals aren't exactly intellectual fare, but at least "The Nutty Professor" celebrates being yourself instead of following the crowd, and even "Striptease" mixes some political satire into its vulgar recipe. "Independence Day" draws a little dignity from restrained performances by Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith, and "Phenomenon" is downright thoughtful in its story of an ordinary man who becomes a genius.

"Courage Under Fire" bolsters the trend toward combining a bit of thought with the action, drama, and other ingredients expected by warm-weather moviegoers. The film centers on an army investigator who sorts through different versions of the same story in a search for truth about a wartime incident. It focuses on highly charged issues like gender stereotypes and military truthtelling in the context of the Persian Gulf conflict, a war mostly avoided until now by Hollywood studios.

Denzel Washington plays Nat Serling, an officer whose conscience is tormented by his involvement in a friendly-fire casualty during a Persian Gulf tank battle. His first assignment after the war gives him a different kind of challenge: determining whether a Medal of Honor should be posthumously bestowed on Karen Walden, a helicopter commander killed after being trapped on the ground with her troops.

The medal would recognize her bravery in combat, but this honor has never gone to a woman before, so Colonel Serling's superiors order him to verify the official account of her death. He quickly discovers that every survivor of the battle has a different story to tell, and that the real facts may be almost impossible to pin down.

The screenplay for "Courage Under Fire" was written by Patrick Sheane Duncan, whose script for "Mr. Holland's Opus" also combined human drama with social issues. Clearly influenced by popular movies like "Citizen Kane" and "Rashomon," he unfolds the plot in a series of flashbacks that often contradict one another, adding up not to a neat pile of evidence but a kaleidoscope of conflicting spins, slants, and impressions.

While the movies that inspired "Courage Under Fire" call into question the very notion of absolute truth in human affairs, the new picture takes a more conservative route. In the end, it explains away its contradictions - individual self-interest and military public-relations needs were to blame for them - and suggests that truth can always be uncovered if you plug away long enough. The final scenes are sweet, sentimental, and much less hard-edged than much of the action that precedes them.

I'd respect "Courage Under Fire" more if it opted for the ambiguity of a "Citizen Kane" rather than the tidy reassurances of conventional drama, which hardly reflect the moral complexities of the issues - wartime violence, military honor, political probity - raised by the story.

Still, credit goes to screenwriter Duncan for thinking at least a little about such serious matters, and to director Edward Zwick for bringing them to the screen with more historical integrity than I found in his previous war picture, "Glory."

Washington gives a fully rounded portrayal of the troubled investigator, showing once again that he's among the few genuine movie stars in Hollywood today. Meg Ryan has impressive energy as the pilot, although the role would have more impact if it were played by an actress with a less glamorous image.

Also on hand are Lou Diamond Phillips, brutally effective as a soldier caught up in the inquiry; Bronson Pinchot as a PR functionary; Michael Moriarty as a general with a hidden agenda; and Scott Glenn as a reporter.

*'Courage Under Fire' has an R rating. It contains much violence and foul language as well as material about alcoholism and drug addiction.

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