Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 22, 2018)
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 also 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, as there’s too much Hee Haw in her intonations. However, much to my surprise, she actually gets the job done in her compelling performance as the deceased Captain Karen Walden.
Yes, Karen’s dead in the “real-time” parts of the film, but Ryan appears during ample flashbacks, for Fire 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, so 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 and 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 surprises me. The notion that Serling would find controversy about Walden’s actions seems virtually inevitable, and the manner in which the tale explores matters 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, so 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 think that the execution makes it compelling. Most movies fail to present much that can be called new, so it’s how they tell their tales that distinguish them, and Fire 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.