This was one of my favorite movies from the 1990's.
A great many things have happened since then to make anyone want to forget this movie, but one day I saw the DVD on Amazon listed for this ridiculously low price, so I got it.
Ah, how things have changed! In 1996 when this movie was made, Meg Ryan was at the peak of her career - she'd been named Woman of the Year by the Harvard Hasty Pudding Society in 1994, and could have just as well been named "America's Sweetheart". She had built up such a reservoir of goodwill for the sweet and lovable characters that she played. Then, in 2001, she turned 40, and had an affair with Russell Crowe while making "Proof of Life" (another movie that I loved at the time, but have since forgotten). She then fell into a full-blown mid-life crisis and basically went nuts, wrecking her face, her public image, and her career. At age 45, she's too old now for the innocent sweetheart roles that made her career, and she hasn't been able to move on to the few wife/mother/divorcee/career woman roles that Hollywood offers to middle-aged actresses. And so she has almost disappeared from the big screen.
At the time, playing the hard-nosed Captain Emma Walden in this movie, Meg Ryan was making a major departure from her usual roles, which only made the story of her character even more poignant. Yes, Captain Walden screamed and cussed at her men and behaved like a "dyke" (that's a quote from a character in the movie, not my opinion, by the way), but we, the moviegoers, all knew that was still good old sweet Meg Ryan underneath that crusty exterior.
Denzel Washington played the deeply conflicted Col. Serling, and this movie would be one of several in the 1990's that would establish him as an A-list superstar.
Lou Diamond Phillips played the angry, callous, and tortured Sgt. Monfriez. Wow! Was it in 1987 that he made "La Bamba"? He was great in that movie and in this movie! And unfortunately those are the only two movies that he's made that I even recognize, as his career fell off into mostly B-movies and TV guest roles.
Matt Damion! I didn't even recognize him in this movie, playing the medic Ilario - he was so young and thin back then. This was one of his first big roles, before he became a star with "Good Will Hunting" and "Saving Private Ryan".
Ah, and of course, there was the background setting of what was known at the time as the Persian Gulf War, but now is usually referred to as the First Iraq War or Iraq War I, to distinguish it from the current quagmire, Iraq War Part Deux.
So no wonder the price of this DVD has dropped like a rock! Subject matter - Iraq War I - who wants to remember that one anymore? Key star of the movie - Meg Ryan - wrecked her image and alienated her fanbase. Time for a clearance sale!
But, this is still a great movie, and it will bring a tear to your eyes.
The story of "Courage Under Fire" is a fiction, but many elements came straight out of the news stories at the time about the real Iraq War I.
I have always thought, for instance, that the idea for the character of Captain Emma Walden was based on the real-life Major Marie Rossi, a Chinook helicopter pilot who was killed in the war. Right before the invasion began, the extremely photogenic Rossi had appeared on national TV in an interview with CNN, talking about flying into combat and facing the possibility of dying in the war. A few days after the interview was broadcast, she and her crew were killed when her helicopter hit the support wires of an unlit microwave tower and crashed. I remember seeing her in the interview and then hearing of her death, and it was quite sad.
Friendly fire was a major element of the news stories from Iraq War I, with the photos of grieving soldiers who had discovered that their friends had died from friendly fire.
"Courage Under Fire" unfolds its tangled storyline in classic "Rashomon" fashion. An ex-tank commander, anguished by his role in an episode of friendly fire that is being covered up by the Army brass, is re-assigned to a desk job to investigate pending medals, one of them being a Medal of Honor to be awarded to the first female soldier to be given such a medal for heroism in combat. His investigation turns up several versions of what happened before he discovers the truth, which turns out to be yet another variety of "friendly fire". And thus fortified, he is also able to address the truth of his own involvement in the friendly fire incident as well.
The final scene of the movie is poignant, mysterious, and lingers in the mind. I still think about it today. It is a replay of an earlier scene in the movie, with one new bit of detail.
It is the morning after the tank battle, and Col. Serling is standing next to the burnt-out tank of his friend, who lies dead on top of the turret. An Army Medevac helicopter that had landed to pick up the wounded takes off in front of him, and Col. Serling looks up, and we see, for the first time, that the pilot of this helicopter is none other than Capt. Walden. She seems to be smiling at him. Is this really how that moment in time transpired? Was she on her way to the battle that would play out in the rest of this movie and go on to earn her the Medal of Honor? Or is this just a trick of Col. Serling's memory, and he is seeing Capt. Walden in his dreams, placing her at this awful moment in time, and she is smiling at him in approval because he has finally gained absolution for both of them by uncovering the truth?