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Film / Courage Under Fire

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Courage Under Fire is a 1996 drama film directed by Edward Zwick, starring Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Matt Damon, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Scott Glenn.

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.
  • Artistic License – Military: Serling fires a turret-mounted machine gun without announcing it beforehand.
  • The Atoner: Serling, who is responsible for an accidental death of allied soldiers in combat, takes this assignment to try to become worthy of being a military man again. He also tells the deceased soldier's family exactly what he did that day so they can judge whether or not he deserves forgiveness.
  • Big Bad: There isn't really one. Montfriez comes the closest to being it, but at the end of the day, all the tragedy comes down to normal people making bad decisions while under pressure.
  • 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.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The last we see of Walden is her bleeding from a gut-shot done by her own men trying to hold off Iraqi troops with her M16 as they are being evaced. It's obvious that she dies and the body was never retrieved because it was a hostile area and there probably was Not Enough to Bury.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Both Walden and Montfriez have valid points after the crash. He insists on making sure the people that are still alive make it out of the siege. She insists that they stand a good chance of standing their ground and saving Rady. Both are equally viable solutions to their problem. Also, while Walden eventually threatens Montfriez with being court-martialed for continuously questioning her direct order, he has the point himself that those orders are progressively less realistic and will likely get them all killed if relief won't arrive soon.
  • Breaking the Glass Ceiling: The film is about whether or not Captain Walden, an army helicopter pilot, should be the first woman awarded the Medal of Honor (posthumously, in this case). In the end, the medal is indeed awarded. This is noticeably something of a plot point because Serling treats this assignment as rather routine until he learns that Captain Walden was female, at which point the more political implications of his task become more than clear to him.
  • Burn Baby Burn: What happened to Walden's body. "Oh Jesus... the fire..."
  • Character Shilling: Everyone who knew Walden while she was alive who doesn't later turn out to be a complete asshole thinks she was wonderful. Admittedly, almost none of the sources Serling gets his info from are unbiased, (her parents, the soldiers she saved, the Army brass that are trying to lionize her, the guy who feels guilty about leaving her to die, etc.) but the way the film almost goes out of its way to portray her as tough, smart, courageous, selfless, and morally in the right at basically every turn comes across as a bit clumsy.
  • The Complainer Is Always Wrong: Monfriez is proven wrong in his evaluation of their situation post-crash. Should he trusted Walden's command, everyone would make it alive, including her.
  • Country Matters: If it wasn't clear why Monfriez doesn't like Walden, he drops this little nugget in the middle of their standoff.
  • 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.
  • Friend or Foe?: Serling's backstory/subplot involves this — when enemy tanks became intermingled with his own, he mistakenly destroys his best friend's tank. Notably, he immediately takes steps to ensure it doesn't happen again, ordering all his tanks to stop and turn on their headlights. He ultimately receives a commendation for his quick thinking, but carries Survivor's Guilt throughout the film over his friend's death.
  • Functional Addict:
    • Serling 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.
  • Government Conspiracy: The Army doesn't want it known that Boylar's death was the result of being shot accidentally by his own commanding officer. Serling slips the reporter who has been hounding him an audio tape of the entire battle.
  • Gulf War: Serling's actions during a tank battle in that war and Walden's actions during another battle in that war drive the whole plot.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Monfriez has elements of this. When ending up under Walden's command, he instantly started to resent her, and eventually staged a mutiny against what he considered an "unworthy" officer.
  • 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.
    • Walden refuses to leave Rady behind even though he's been shot in the head and will likely die no matter what happens. (Although he actually ends up living.) This forms the core of the conflict with Monfriez and Altameyer that later ends in her death.
  • 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?"
  • Improvised Weapon: Since she's piloting a barely-armed medevac helicopter, Walden orders soldiers under her command to drop a drum of fuel they are carrying as an improvised firebomb over the Iraqi soldiers to force them to abandon their position.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Monfriez (correctly) points out that Rady's wound is likely mortal, and that staying at the crash site to defend him is likely to get all five of them killed.
  • Kill It with Fire: Walden's improvised fuel tank firebomb and the A-10's napalm run.
  • Mexican Standoff: What causes the entire tragedy. Montfriez and Walden were holding guns on each other, when Walden spotted an Iraqi soldier and fired, simultaneously being shot by Montfriez.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Montfriez is a particularly egregious example. In his version of the events, he both up-plays his importance and combat performance, while at the same time presenting Walden as an incompetent Hysterical Woman. In reality, he completely folded under the pressure, wanting to just save his own skin, while Walden was every bit as competent as her medal recommendation states, if failing to lead her men.
  • 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. Also Montfriez after he first shoots Walden, then realising that she was actually firing on the Iraqi troops who'd just appeared.
  • Non-Action Guy: Ilario, Matt Damon's character. He is a combat medic, after all, and when Serling visits him, he's manning pharmacy in his base.
  • 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.
  • Not Quite the Right Thing: Walden takes the Honor Before Reason approach to leadership, and tries to compensate in the field by throwing her authority around in a life and death situation rather than trying to inspire/persuade her obviously panicked men. It leads to them finally turning on her, and while them leaving her to die is unforgivable, Walden really could have handled the whole situation better.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Averted by the reporter who was initially hounding Serling for a quote on the friendly-fire incident. Serling couldn't locate Altemeyer who was out of the Army and lost by Veterans Affairs. In a couple days the reporter tracks him down to a hospice center.
  • 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.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Montfriez is kind of a dick, and ultimately the closest thing to a true villain, but he saves Illario's life when he's about to fall out of the Huey to his death.
    • Serling's commanding officer sympathizes with his guilty conscience and is aware of but turning a blind eye to Serling's alcohol abuse. He also sticks up for Serling during his friendly-fire investigation, despite all the headaches Serling has given him during the Walden investigation.
    • It takes a little prodding from Walden, but the desperately scared and wounded Altameyer carries Rady to the helicopter instead of leaving him.
  • Posthumous Character: Walden is dead during the course of the film occupied by Serling. All her appearances take place in flashbacks.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: 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 is on so many drugs and painkillers that he's mostly in his own world when Serling tries to talk to him (although he seems to become despondent whenever the topic is 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 started rebelling (Montfriez more than Altameyer) against Walden's authority when she refused to leave Rady behind. Ilario timidly sided with them, leading to a standoff between Walden and Montfriez when she demanded he turn over his weapon. Walden then shot an approaching Iraqi soldier, causing a startled 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 led 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 Reveal: The actual crash and following events are played in the third act, completely changing the story: Walden was indeed the gallant officer, while Montfriez staged a mutinity, accidently shot her during attempted arrest and ultimately left her to die. Him claiming her cowardice and poor performance is nothing more than covering his tracks.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Under the facade of Drill Sergeant Nasty, Montfriez is a completely broken man due to his wartime experience. It's implied he keeps posturing the badass image of a battle-hardened veteran as his coping mechanism. He's ultimately Driven to Suicide over his guilt of leaving Walden to die.
  • Sincerity Mode: Serling sounds noticeably genuine when he pleads with Montfriez not to kill himself, agreeing with him that he's 'been a good soldier' and Serling doesn't want to lose any more good soldiers.
  • Spot the Imposter: Iraqi tanks are mixed in with friendlies. Serling orders his tanks to stop moving and turn on their headlamps which is not normal procedure in the middle of combat.
  • 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.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • Turns out Walden found this out the hard way. She makes it clear to Montfriez that no matter what happens, "there will be a reckoning" likely meaning that she intends to have him and the others court-martialed despite his last minute cooperation with her. As a result, he decides to leave her to die instead.
    • Montfriez, Altameyer, and Ilario are all complicit in Captain Walden's death. Instead of them taking the Never My Fault approach, potentially portraying any one of them as a soulless monster, all of them clearly understand that what happened to her was their fault, and are haunted by it.
  • 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 the M1 Abrams, a common practice in movies that aren't Backed by the Pentagon. In an instance of the audio department having Shown Their Work, the Centurion's gasoline engine has been overdubbed with the sounds of a turbine engine similar to the one used by the real Abrams.
  • Trapped Behind Enemy Lines: After Walden's medevac helicopter is shot down during a battle, she and her men had to spend the night in a ditch besieged by enemy soldiers.
  • Trauma Button: When Serling goes to speak with Walden's parents, her daughter comes into the room and stares wordlessly at him. Walden's father explains that it's because men dressed like him came with news about her mother's death. Serling immediately removes his jacket to try and put the girl at ease.
  • Unfriendly Fire: Played with. Montfriez shoots at Walden because he mistakenly believes she's deliberately shooting at him. Later however, he plays it straight by proxy; when the rescue choppers arrive, he claims Walden is already dead so the A-10 airstrike will kill her.
  • What You Are in the Dark: The premise behind both Walden's Medal of Honor recommendation and, more importantly, the situation at the crash site. Under the pressure of being besieged and Trapped Behind Enemy Lines, each of the soldiers shows their true colours and what drives them. Notably, all of them are flawed, including Walden, but she's ultimately validated for her actions allowing everyone else to survive, while Montfriez is haunted for the rest of his life by his own cowardice and leaving Walden behind to die and save his own skin.
  • With Due Respect: "I strongly urge you to dismount the vehicle, sir! Yaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!"