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Courage Under Fire
I don't like launching straight into the body of any review, so I've been trying to come up with a suitable dig against The English Patient. See, I was somewhat dismayed to see that film clean up at the Oscars, as I thought two vastly superior films, both of which happened to be photographed by the great Roger Deakins, were released in 1996. One of these films--Fargo--was pretty much robbed at the Oscars, while the other--Courage Under Fire--wasn't even given the opportunity to be robbed. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to come up with anything, so I guess we'll just have to get on with it.
After being involved in an incident of friendly fire during Desert Storm, Lt. Commander Nat Sterling (Denzel Washington) has become more and more distant from his family and colleagues, and has taken to drink in hopes of escaping his personal demons. While awaiting the results of the inquiry into the incident, Sterling is assigned to review the candidacy of Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), the first women chosen to receive a Medal of Honor for combat. But this assignment is not as cut and dried as it sounds. Despite the fact that the surviving members of Walden's helicopter crew (including a gaunt Matt Damon and a feral Lou Diamond Phillips) give conflicting statements about the rescue mission that took her life (statements that would seem to indicate court marshal-worthy actions on the part of some of those involved in the mission, including Walden herself), Sterling's superiors, who know that posthumously awarding the medal to a woman will be a huge public relations coup, want the matter dealt with quickly and with as little fuss as possible. Sterling, however, refuses to take the easy route.
It seems every decade gets the unofficial Kurosawa remake it deserves, and Edward Zwick's Courage Under Fire is the 1990's entry in that particular cinematic club (we'll just forget about Last Man Standing). There's no question that Patrick Sheane Duncan's screenplay owes more than a small debt to Rashomon, both in terms of its structure and themes--each involves a quest for the truth, with multiple recollections of a single event unfolding in flashback. But if you're going to steal, you might as well steal from the best, so it's hard to fault Duncan--whose work on Mr. Holland's Opus and the Johnny Depp thriller Out of Time gave no indication of the heights he would reach here--for his actions. And while Courage doesn't have quite the same impact as Kurosawa's film (how could it?), it's nevertheless an exceptional, albeit curiously underrated film. (It's also miles ahead of that other Rashomon remake, The Outrage, which featured Paul Newman as, of all things, a Mexican bandit).
This is an exceedingly well-crafted film. It's intelligent and involving; the acting it first-rate. I marvel at how the story somehow manages to continue to build and grow murkier even as its outer layers are being peeled away. And I've always admired how Zwick and Duncan bring a distinct feel and tone to the various crewmen's stories. Each flashback has essentially the same beginning and conclusion, but the heart of each is quite different, both in content and execution. It's almost as if each had been created by a different writer and director. And when the truth is finally revealed, it's an amalgam of what has come before, again both in terms of content and execution. This approach definitely works in the film's favor, adding several layers to the mystery at the heart of the story.
Despite my immense admiration for the film, there's one scene that continues to bother me. It's the scene involving the train, and while I understand its purpose and intent, it strikes me as being a bit too overwrought and over-the-top to really jibe with the rest of the film. It's a minor flaw, but a flaw nonetheless. And I know people who find the conclusion too easy and pat, but I don't; I find the ending immensely satisfying, and can't think of a more appropriate way to conclude the story. And while we're on the subject of flaws, someone needs to tell Meg Ryan she should never again attempt a Southern accent. Just thought I'd put that out there.
According to information provided in this disc's supplements, the U.S. military had agreed to cooperate in the film's production, providing technical assistance, weaponry, etc., but later pulled its support. While I can understand this decision, the film is hardly an indictment of the armed forces. If anything, it's an indictment of hypocrisy and the mindset of employing both public and private faces, a practice that is in no way exclusive to the military. As was the case with Rashomon, thematically the story could very easily translate to other times and settings.
The DVD Video:
The 1.85:1 transfer exhibits the same minor flaws as that of the standard definition release: a bit of edge enhancement and a couple of noisy backgrounds. Other than that, it's excellent (so excellent I almost hate to have to knock the rating down). As I mentioned earlier, the fantastic cinematography comes courtesy of Roger Deakins, and I'd wager that it was his work here that led to his being hired by Sam Mendes to shoot Jarhead. There is an intentional disparity between the visual schemes of the story's two timeframes (muted and somewhat dark for the investigation, bright and somewhat bleak for the flashbacks), and the transfer captures both very well. Colors are vibrant and saturated when they need to be. The level of detail is quite impressive, especially in the opening nighttime battle sequence.
It's a Fox release, so you get the expected DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio track, and this time around it's a fantastic one. Much like the visuals, the sound design varies greatly between the two sections of the film. Much of the dialogue in the investigation sequences is spoken in hushed tones, and the surrounds rarely come into play. The flashbacks, on the other hand, are incredibly dynamic, with the entire soundstage put to excellent use; the surrounds and low end are constantly engaged. And because it plays an important part in the plot, each weapon has its own individual, easily recognizable sound. French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also included, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
Director Edward Zwick's commentary track isn't quite up to the standards of his other commentaries, but it is still very interesting and informative, balancing production information with observations regarding character and story.
Fox has also included a Trivia Track. This one does contain a few nuggets of production info, but most of the material concerns the military vehicles and weaponry featured in the film. And in a welcome move, this one is much easier to read than the others I've encountered.
The disc has been enhanced for playback compatibility with D-Box Motion Control Systems.
Rounding things out is the film's theatrical trailer.
Courage Under Fire is a truly great film, and its effectiveness doesn't dim with subsequent viewings. Highly recommended.