COURAGE UNDER FIRE - Blu-ray review

There have been a lot of military movies released on Blu-ray, but Courage Under Fire is a drama that's a cut above the rest.

James Plath's picture

"Courage Under Fire" was the first Hollywood movie made about the first Gulf War, but it received much more attention because its subject was a woman in combat. Director Edward Zwick says in the commentary that the film was inspired by Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon," which involved four defendents in a rape-murder case who offered wildly differing accounts of what happened. If you haven't seen this Japanese classic, then a model that's closer to home would be "The Accused."

Like that Jodie Foster film about a rape victim, "Courage Under Fire" centers on the person in charge of the investigation and the various witnesses that are asked to tell their side of the story. In both films, the true picture doesn't come into focus until the very end. The issue here isn't a rape or murder, but rather an investigation to determine if Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) is worthy of receiving the Medal of Honor for which she's been nominated. Walden was a helicopter pilot who, like the real heroes of "Black Hawk Down," was credited for saving the lives of another downed chopper crew. What's interesting about "Courage Under Fire" is that the investigator isn't exactly pure and wholesome. Lt. Col. Nate Serling (Denzel Washington) is an alcoholic with family issues and bigger problems related to his own Gulf War service. The opening sequence shows him leading a tank battalion into action and subsequently ordering an attack on a vehicle he thinks is Iraqi, but which turns out to have been one of his own. "You just lit up a friendly," comes the voice over his radio.

That voice haunts him, and it underscores the investigation when Serling is asked to personally handle the case. "Doug Bruno, White House. Just do everything my way and we'll get along fine," he's told by George H.W. Bush's emissary. "I know about the drinking," says General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), who along with the White House wants this medal rubber stamped and isn't afraid to imply blackmail to ensure cooperation. Despite his own Gulf War guilt--or perhaps because of it--Serling is determined to get at the truth. And of course, learning the truth leads him to his own redemption. It's mostly offstage, but even as Serling pokes and prods, a Washington Post reported named Gartner (Scott Glenn) is trying to get at what happened in the tank incident, for which Serling was apparently awarded a medal. That adds an interesting parallel and tension to the story.

As in "Roshomon" and "The Accused," good guys and bad buys emerge during the investigation. Matt Damon lost a ton of weight to play Specialist Ilario, the medic who offers testimony in support of Capt. Walden. But others are more tepid or secretive about their responses, and Staff Sergeant John Monfriecz (Lou Diamond Phillips) insists that Walden was a coward, plain and simple. Who\\'s right? That\\'s for Serling to find out, and for the rest of us to guess at along the way.

The screenplay by Patrick Sheane Duncan negotiates the narrow gap between melodrama and mystery fairly well, and director Zwick has an impeccable sense of pacing. The script contains believable dialogue and the performances are praiseworthy. But brace yourself for a different Meg Ryan if you haven't seen this one before. I'm not sure if I bought the macho Texas female routine, but Ryan certainly gives it her all. She appears in every account of what happened on that hillside in Iraq. Otherwise, it's the Denzel Washington show, and Washington is really the driving force behind the film. Like "The Accused," it's a solid investigative drama that also has something to say about the issues involved.

The 1080p HD picture was transferred to a 25-gig single layer disc using MPEG-2 technology at 18MPBS, with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 that fills out the entire 16x9 screen. Other than a lot of soft-focus background grain, the picture has plenty of detail, even in dark corners, and decent color saturation and black levels. But because of that slight grain, it's not a poster child for Blu-ray.

The audio is a DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless, with closed captions in English and subtitles in Spanish and English. Additional audio options (though not as powerful or resonant) are Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1. I didn't find the audio to be as powerful as some of the best Blu-rays. Though it the bass was resonant and the treble bright, it just didn't fill the room with sound, the way some of the best 6-track discs will do.

The director's commentary is low-key but quite good, with Zwick explaining how he interviewed Gulf War veterans for the film, one of whom actually gave him a tape of a battle recorded from his tank. That would prove to be a key element of the film, and it's an example of how a happy coincidence can propel a film forward. I recommend watching the trivia track at the same time, because they really complement each other nicely. One talks about perspectives and the hows and whys of the production, while the other gives facts about the Gulf War, Denzel Washington, and the whats of the film's production. We get one interesting fact that makes us wonder what is the current percentage of troops dying from friendly fire in the second Iraq war. During WWII, 16 percent of the deaths were by friendly fire. In Vietnam, that number was 14 percent, which seems low, considering that there were a number of premeditated killings of superior officers by men who were tired of being ordered to put their lives on the line for something they didn't understand. But the biggest surprise is that the Gulf War produced 24 percent friendly fire casualties. Those facts come to us via the trivia track.

This Blu-ray is enhanced for D-Box Motion Control systems, and the theatrical player is provided in HD.

Bottom Line:
There have been a lot of military movies released on Blu-ray thus far, but "Courage Under Fire" is a drama that's a cut above the rest. The investigation holds our interest, and the replaying of events makes us guess at the truth even as it's dangled tantalizingly out of reach. And the cast? They do a credible job of bringing everything to life.


Film Value