Film / Courage Under Fire

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Courage Under Fire is a 1996 drama film directed by Edward Zwick, and starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan.

Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Washington) is tortured by an incident he was involved in during combat in the Gulf War. He was an M1 Abrams tank battalion commander who, during the nighttime confusion of Iraqi tanks infiltrating his unit's lines, gave the order to fire, thereby destroying one of his own tanks and killing his friend Captain Boylar. Out of remorse, he has resigned himself to a desk job.

His latest assignment is to decide whether Army Captain Karen Emma Walden (Ryan) should be the first woman to receive (posthumously) the Medal of Honor for valor in combat. She was a helicopter pilot who saved the lives of the crew of another helicopter that was downed, after which she and her crew were downed themselves. Said latter crew was rescued the next day, but by then Walden was dead.

It is Serling's job to go and speak with the surviving crewmembers to discern what happened during the night and thus decide whether Walden deserves the Medal or not. It all looks as though it will be straightforward... but then the surviving crewmembers offer differing explanations for what happened, and differing descriptions of what Walden was like... and Serling, haunted by the way the Army has swept his own responsibility for the tank incident under the rug, refuses to be part of doing the same with someone else.


This film provides examples of:

  • Armor-Piercing Question: When Ilario tells Serling that Walden would likely have been killed even if they hadn't left her to die.
    Serling: "You think that matters?"
  • The Alcoholic: Serling has turned to drinking to help drown out the memories, and he's barely keeping it under wraps.
  • Artistic License Awards: Captain Walden would actually have been the second woman to earn a Congressional Medal of Honor for courage under fire. The first was Doctor (Captain) Mary Edwards Walker, who earned the award for her refusal to stop treating patients and evacuate when her field hospital was shelled by Confederate artillery during the US Civil War. That's 135 years prior to when this film is set. On the other hand, Walden would have been the first to receive the Medal of Honor for actually taking part in combat, plus the only Medal of Honor recipient for Desert Storm.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Serling figures out the mystery behind Walden's death and her daughter receives her mother's Medal of Honor. Serling also tells Boylar's parents what happened to their son, and it is is implied he will eventually come to terms with what happened. Aside from that, the movie doesn't end particularly happily for anybody.
  • Burn Baby Burn: What happened to Walden's body. "Oh Jesus... the fire..."
  • Death from Above: Walden implements an ad-hoc version of this by having the chopper's auxiliary fuel tank dumped on an Iraqi tank and then set off by a flare gun. Also the airstrikes sent in to cover the rescue of Walden and the others.
  • Dirty Coward: Montfriez, Altameyer, and Ilario (who's weak and goes along with them) wanted to abandon Rady to escape the Iraqis, but Walden refuses.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Monfriez has become this since the war.
  • Driven to Suicide: Monfriez. Driving headfirst into a train no less
  • Female Misogynist: Rady's wife shows some of this, feeling that Walden needlessly took them into danger and makes some comments that border on being anti-gay against Walden. Rady basically tells her to shut up and that she doesn't know what she's talking about.
  • Foreshadowing: The first time Serling goes to question Montfriez, he shows up just in time to watch him give hell to a soldier who had just abandoned a comrade during a training exercise. It's his guilt over leaving Walden to die to save his own ass talking.
  • Functional Addict: Sterling is this, but his alcohol problems are getting worse due to Survivor's Guilt, among other factors.
    • Specialist Illario is also a functional addict, shooting up morphine between his toes to dull his own guilt over what happened in the war.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Monfriez has elements of this.
  • Honor Before Reason: Serling wants the committee that's investigating the incident where he accidentally fired on one of his own tanks to give a real evaluation rather than just sweep it under the tablenote . He's also determined to investigate Walden's case thoroughly and honestly, rather than just creating a good PR story, even after his CO removes him from the assignment.
  • Is That a Threat?: Serling, when Monfriez warns him to leave the investigation alone.
    "Son, I work for the Pentagon, so I admit I'm a little slow on the uptake, but did you just threaten me?"
  • Kill It with Fire: Walden's improvised fuel tank firebomb and the A-10's napalm run.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Ilario and even Montfriez have this reaction as they watch Walden's position get napalmed after leaving her to die.
  • Non-Action Guy: Matt Damon's character.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: Subverted; Monfriez, a Drill Sergeant Nasty, yells at a trainee about leaving a comrade who was tangled in barbed wire behind. We later learn, however, that he'd done just that to his wounded commanding officer after she'd threatened to court martial him.
  • Oh Crap!: Serling in the opening battle. **"Cease fire! Cease fire! You just lit up a friendly!"
    • Monfriez, after dismissing Serling and finds himself nose to nose with the pissed off Colonel.
      "It doesn't matter if I'm on this inquiry or not, it doesn't matter if I'm in this Army or not! I'm gonna find out the truth, I guarantee!"
  • Perspective Flip: The events involving Walden are told from the POV's of the various members of her crew. A critical plot point as the members give conflicting stories.
  • Posthumous Character: Walden is dead during the course of the film occupied by Serling. All her appearances take place in flashbacks.
  • The Rashomon: Walden's entire downed helicopter crew survived except for her, and all give different accounts of what she was like. Ilario sings her praises, while Monfriez calls her a coward who collapsed under pressure. Altameyer is dying of cancer and seems to become despondent whenever the topic is even brought up, and Rady was shot in the head and unconscious the entire time. By the end, Ilario tells Serling the real story, that Montfriez and Altameyer got scared and rebelled against Walden's authority when she refused to leave Rady behind. Ilario timdily sided with them, leading to a standoff between Walden and Montfriez when she demanded his weapon. Walden then shot an approaching Iraqi soldier only for Montfriez to think she was shooting at him and shoot her in the stomach. When rescue arrived, the injured Walden held back the Iraqis on her own while the three escaped with Rady, assuming they would come back for her. But Montfriez told the rescue party she was dead, abandoning the captain to her fate to avoid a court-martial, which lead to the whole crash site (and presumably Walden) being napalmed. Altameyer was wounded and could not protest, while Ilario was too afraid to. The three men were subsequently traumatized by guilt to varying degrees.
  • The Squadette: Walden. Justified as she's actually a Medical helicopter pilot, but the plot revolves around her having to take this role for her crew when they're shot down.
  • Stab the Scorpion: Walden and one of the soldiers under her command are having an argument. Suddenly she shoots behind him, at an Iraqi soldier that was about to kill him. Alas, he thinks she was shooting at him, and he shoots her back.
  • Tank Goodness: The film starts off showing a night tank battle between U.S. and Iraqi tank divisions.
  • Tanks, but No Tanks: The Abrams tanks in this movie are actually British Centurion tanks modified to look like Abrams, a common practice in movies that aren't Backed by the Pentagon.
  • Unfriendly Fire: Occurs in both the film's plot and sub-plot. Monfriez shoots at Walden after he mistakenly believes she's shooting at him. Serling accidentally kills a soldier under his command when he fires on his tank mistaking it for an enemy tank.
  • With Due Respect: "I strongly urge you to dismount the vehicle, sir! Yaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!"
  • Worst Aid: At some points the soldiers are fairly liberal with moving Rady, not something you usually want to do when someone has a head wound. Justified, as they're better about it when not under attack, and the time when they're really swinging him around is when they're trying to evacuate a combat zone.


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