FF49 - Courage Under Fire

Intro by John Roderick

I don’t know how many movies Denzel Washington and Edward Zwick made together, but the odds of us randomly selecting three of them in the first year of our show suggests that the number is surely in the thousands. This is the dream team that made Glory, the spectacular film that turned Denzel into America’s number one movie star. We gave that movie five cooked chickens or whatever. It was great! We’ve also reviewed The Siege, the 1999 film with an eerie level of prescience about the war on terror that was sort of disjointed and weird and not exactly good. We gave that movie 3 half-cooked chickens, I think, or three exploding buses. I just want Adam to feel loved.

Well, this movie came in between those, in the heady year of 1996, a year I lived through, but can barely recall. Was Tupac still alive then? Oh yeah: 1996 was fat-legged raver pants and white girls wearing bindis. Man, I was dating Laurel then (see Friends) and she once made a life-sized paper maché horse. Anyway, it was also the decade that women integrated the armed forces. Starting in 1993, women started appearing in all walks of military life: commanding bases, flying combat aircraft, piloting space shuttles, the works! It wasn’t long before women were dying in combat, earning Purple Hearts, commanding fighting troops. This was deeply threatening to a large quadrant of the American public and a lot larger quadrant a military insiders.

I spent a little time just recently with an active duty Navy Command Master Chief and over cigars he groused that women had no place in the armed forces and were ruining everything. He commanded thousands of sailors, men and women, but thought nothing of confiding in me, clearly a beatnik Trotsky-eyed who probably smoked jazz cigarettes and kissed feminists, his strident and unvarnished prejudice. Thankfully he retired soon after to California where he now posts Pepe memes on Facebook when he isn’t posing proudly at a granddaughter’s Quinceañera. May you live in interesting times!

So: Zwick wants to take a hard look at Desert Storm and probe our national anxieties about women in combat, and thank God Denzel is there as Lieutenant Colonel Sterling, a talented tank commander and combat veteran haunted by a bad call in the first Gulf War where he killed another American tank. He’s been given a purgatory assignment at the Pentagon researching Medal of Honor nominees. It’s not a plum assignment for this former rising star, but a case lands on his desk of a female chopper pilot shot down in Iraq. She fought valiantly, saving her crew, killing the enemy and, wounded, provided covering fire as her men were rescued. The Medal of Honor seems cut and dried. Captain Karen Walden will be the first woman to receive it, the politicians love it, the soldier she saved believes she deserves it, and: Hell! This whole thing is going to play great on the evening news back at a time when the news was something you consumed in the evening.

Denzel should just rubber-stamp this case. Dammit, Denzel! Just rubber-stamp this case! But no, he’s got a chip on his shoulder about the way the military lies and covers things up, so he is going to do this one by the book. No one is asking for that, but, you see: He is increasingly troubled by inconsistencies in the accounts of the soldiers under Captain Walden’s command. Ah, Denzel, you are so tedious! Just fill out the forms! But no! This movie has a lot of flashbacks to combat sequences. We watch the helicopter crash and ensuing battle many times, but in a feat of movie magic we see the scene play out differently each time. Not different views of the same action, that’s a familiar technique, but completely contradictory versions of what went down. It’s a novel twist on the ”whodunit” and it leaves us scratching our heads, just as Denzel scratches his head. We are all scratching together!

Matt Damon is here, pre Good Will Hunting, doing that awful method actor thing of getting super skinny to play some role where it would have been just fine to be normal and suck in your cheeks and wear some makeup. Lou Diamond Phillips is good as the bad guy who says Walden was a coward and he personally did all the valor, because he’s a mofo and women belong in the kitchen, or some shit. Also, there are some other dudes. But at the center of this movie is Meg Ryan. This is peak mid 1990s Ryan, but she is not meeting Harry, she does not got mail, no: She is immolating Iraqis with bags of gasoline and she is all out of bubble gum. We see Meg react this helicopter crash scene as a hero, as a coward, as a dupe, as a vampire, and as a purple dinosaur who wants to be a dentist. This was the most expensive audition reel in history! She did it as a French person, she did it with a lisp, it’s a command performance!

Meanwhile Denzel is still racked with guilt from his flashbacks. I started having my own flashbacks to the Gulf War, to that winter night when the war kicked off and a bunch of us went down to Gas Works Park to stage a protest but no one else came because a) it was a park and a stupid place to stage a protest and b) it was fucking freezing. I ended up bumming cigarettes all night from this anarchist crust punk because, frankly, he had his shit way more together than I did and he could afford cigarettes. We didn’t stop the war that night and I still have nightmares about how close I came to starting a zine with that guy.

Anyway, Denzel is mad at the cover-up and the lies told to the parents of the men he killed. Captain Walden’s case becomes a proxy for dealing with his own shit. Now: Hollywood often picks proxys as main characters when it tries to delve into an issue like this. Zwick cast Denzel as our intermediary. Now: it wasn’t that long ago that the military racially integrated in an even more hotly contested process. Yet, even though that would be a very interesting hot take here, Denzel’s race is an apparent non-issue. He doesn’t even make the connection himself that women in the military are the new African-Americans in the military. This colorblind staging seems foreign to our modern sensibilities, almost like a relic from an alternate history universe.

In other world 1996 people really believed in the possibility of a post-racial America, except that that was real 1996, white girls with bindis notwithstanding. Still: It’s Meg Ryan’s performance that steals the show and it really was a role ripped from the headlines. It is no surprise that there aren’t any supporting military women there, although there are some strong female leads elsewhere in the film. We are meant to feel how tough she must have been to face the isolation of breaking that kind of ground. Real women were doing that exact thing at the time: joining ranks with the tip of the spear, being the first of their kind to walk into that ready room or to stand behind that gun or to die in the line of fire. But alas: In the end Meg Ryan’s story and women in the military take a backseat to Denzel’s interrogation of military codes of honor and silence. There are still stories from that time yet to tell.

This special episode of Friendly Fire is all about a couple of instances of friendly fire. Sweet Jesus, there’s always a tape. Please enjoy our review of Courage Under Fire!

T-shirt idea

Foamed-over mug of coffee, empty wrapper of Alka-Seltzer, text "Make good choices"

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License