Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Courage Under Fire: Special Edition (1996)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox - A medal for honor. A search for justice. A battle for truth.

When Lt. Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) is asked to review the postumous candidacy of the first woman (Meg Ryan) to receive a Medal of Honor, he finds himself plunged into an apparent cover-up surrounding the actions that led to her death. As he struggles to uncover the truth, he also finds himself forced to confront his own tormenting demons. Matt Damon co-stars in this powerful and provocative drama.

Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips, Matt Damon, Scott Glenn, Seth Gilliam, Michael Moriarty, Regina Taylor, Bronson Pinchot
Box Office: Budget: $46 million. Opening Weekend: $12.501 million (1986 screens). Gross: $61.7 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, English DTS 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 28 chapters; rated R; 117 min.; $29.98; street date 12/26/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary from Director Ed Zwick; Featurette; Three Trailers; Three TV Spots.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/A-/C+

Actors hate to be typecast and often will go to extremes to prove their range. Comedians play serious dramatic roles, hard-edged performers eye light fare, and so on, often with catastrophic results.

In 1996’s Courage Under Fire, Meg Ryan - aka “America’s sweetheart” - clearly tried to broaden her spectrum. For this film, she played a military officer/helicopter pilot of questionable valor. Not only did the role require her to adopt a Southern accent, but it also made her take on a gritty, commanding tone miles away from the fluffy and cutesy material that comprises the bulk of her work.

Ryan can’t quite pull off the accent; there’s too much Hee Haw in her intonations. However, much to my surprise, she actually got the job done in her compelling performance as the deceased Captain Karen Walden.

Yes, she’s dead in the “real-time” parts of the film. The story to CUF proceeds as an investigation. Walden is the first woman to receive a nomination for the Medal of Honor, and booze-chugging, battle-rattled Lt. Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) must check out the validity of her actions during the Gulf War. Serling had his own problems during that conflict, and this task falls to him as part of an effort to get him back to normal.

At first, the award is regarded as a done-deal; Serling’s report is needed just to add the final seal of approval. However, we start to learn that the participants in the events can’t quite agree on what happened; things weren’t quite as simple as they initially seemed. Against opposition of others who just want the sublime photo op of the medal ceremony on TV, Serling pursues the truth of the Walden affair while he fights his own demons.

Little about Courage Under Fire surprised me. The notion that Serling would find controversy about Walden’s actions was virtually inevitable, and the manner in which the matters are explored follows a very predictable path. The film also uses a conventional method to look into Serling’s own problems. From minute one, we know that something will eventually shed clear light on both of these situations; we just need to pick through the clues and try to figure it out along with the characters.

Despite the easily-anticipated manner in which the story progresses, I thought that the execution made it compelling. Most movies fail to present much that can be called new; it’s how they tell their tales that distinguish them, and CUF creates an intriguing and well-played piece. As he also demonstrated in The Siege, director Ed Zwick has a talent for presenting American ideals in a moving and stimulating manner. Granted, the issues he covers in these films - essentially truth and freedom - aren’t unique to the US, but they are deeply ingrained in the American experience, for better or for worse. Such topics can be easily abused and depicted in mushy, rah-rah ways, but somehow Zwick gets to what’s right about those ideals and cleanly depicts what’s right about the American motif.

As such, I find myself able to tolerate and even enjoy some of Zwick’s melodramatic excesses more than I normally would. Maybe it’s just when he involves Denzel Washington that these areas are rendered compelling; after all, the ‘Zel also stars in The Siege. Whatever the case may be, it’s rare that I feel a connection with these American ideals during movies, but Zwick’s get to me.

Courage Under Fire remains a flawed piece. Its climax steals shamelessly from Platoon, and there’s little about it that stands out from a million other flicks. However, that smidgen of uniqueness makes it worth viewing. It’s predictable but it’s well-executed and emotionally satisfying. Any movie that gets me to care about a Meg Ryan character must have something going for it.

The DVD:

Courage Under Fire appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. For the most part, the picture looked terrific, but a few minor concerns knocked my grade down slightly.

As a whole, sharpness seemed fairly crisp and detailed. The majority of the film presented images that appeared clear and accurate, but some mild softness could be discerned at times. These occasions usually cropped up during interior scenes; some of those shots could look slightly fuzzy. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no problems, and artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV were minor. Print flaws caused no significant concerns, but the film didn’t completely lack them. I saw some examples of light grain, grit and speckles from time to time plus I detected a small scratch or two. These never became major issues, but they appeared somewhat excessive for such a recent movie.

The palette of CUF mainly sticks to variations of olive drab and khaki. As a whole, the colors seemed accurate and properly saturated. There’s no instances of dazzling hues in the film, but the tones we see all looked clean and clear. Black levels came across as nicely deep and rich, but some shadow detail seemed a bit heavy. Low-light situations could appear moderately thick at times, though they usually presented easily visible images. All in all, I felt Courage Under Fire looked very good.

Even better were the film’s soundtracks. We get both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes here. As a whole, I thought the two sounded pretty similar; I’ll discuss any differences I discerned in a general paragraph when I complete my other opinions of the audio.

Much of the film presented a nicely broad and engaging soundfield. Not surprisingly, it was the battle scenes that gave the mix its best dimensionality. At those times, the track really became lively as it used all five channels actively. The sounds of war surrounded me in a realistic and natural manner. Audio seemed well-integrated between the different speakers, and sounds blended neatly from channel to channel; an early tank roll showed the smoothness with which effects moved.

Audio quality seemed similarly strong. Dialogue came across as natural and accurate with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music was bright and dynamic and clearly reproduced the film’s score at all times; I thought this element of the mix appeared very clean and smooth. Effects were also terrific and they often packed a substantial punch. From the deep bass heard in explosions or the rumbling of tanks to the hard slam of mortar fire, all of the effects seemed clear and crisp at all times; I detected no signs of distortion no matter how loud the track became. Ultimately, the mix offered a terrific auditory experience.

As a whole, I preferred the DTS soundtrack, but I must admit that the differences seemed minor. I felt that the DTS mix displayed somewhat deeper and tighter low end, and that it presented a more-rounded audio environment; the sounds blended together a little better during that track. However, there’s not a huge difference between the two; if you have DTS capabilities, you should use that mix, but you’ll also be very pleased with the Dolby track.

Actually, one major difference does exist between the two: the DTS mix was mastered at a much higher level of volume. That meant that when I switched between the two, I needed to crank the volume of the DD mix much higher to have it equal what I heard on the DTS track. This happens frequently, and I’ve never understood why. Anyway, be cautioned that this difference in volume levels exists; it could be a problem if you jump from DD to DTS without prior preparation.

Courage Under Fire contributes a few supplements, the most significant of which is a running, screen-specific audio commentary from director Ed Zwick. Although I hated the movie itself, I enjoyed Zwick’s track for Legends of the Fall. However, that piece also benefited from the presence of Brad Pitt, whereas Zwick’s on his own for CUF.

Apparently Zwick really needs another participant to spark his remarks, as he often failed to maintain my attention during this commentary. At times, he offers some interesting and insightful statements about the production and his intentions as a filmmaker, but much of his material does little more than praise the cast and crew. He also goes silent for many conspicuous periods. Ultimately, the commentary provided some moderate entertainment but it seemed fairly dull and lackluster.

In addition, the DVD includes a brief featurette. This -minute and -second piece features the usual combination of movie clips, interview sound bites, and shots from the set. Clearly the program functions as a promotional offering designed to entice us to see the movie, but I thought it showed enough good footage to merit my attention. You won’t gain much insight about the production, but the show is compelling enough to warrant a look.

The DVD also features three theatrical trailers and three TV spots. It’s not an exhaustive collection of supplements, but it’s a decent package that contains some interesting pieces.

When Courage Under Fire hit theaters in 1996, I skipped it because it looked like jingoistic nonsense. I also don’t like Meg Ryan, and the thought of watching her “stretch” her acting abilities didn’t compel me. However, it turns out that CUF is a generally stimulating and moving piece that succeeds on most fronts. The DVD offers largely solid picture plus fine sound and some decent extras. Fans of military dramas should definitely give it a look.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top