Courage Under Fire is a remarkably atmospheric thriller, starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan as a pair of soldiers who never have the chance to meet each other. Haunted by a mistake that got his buddies killed during the Gulf War, Lieutenant Colonel Serling (Washington) retires from active duty, and takes a job investigating whether Captain Karen Emma Walden (Ryan) should become the first female soldier to receive the Medal of Honour in combat. Walden was the pilot of a Medevac helicopter that was shot down while offering aid to a stranded military craft, and appears only in a series of flashbacks. While Serling’s investigation seems to be a pure formality, he soon discovers that the official story given to him by the other survivors is not quite what it seems, and questions whether Walden is a hero at all, only to discover finally that she’s even more of a hero than he had previously imagined. Ryan is very much cast against type here, but it works – her squinting, slightly disarmed manner is perfect for a helicopter pilot – and actually results in one of her best performances.
At stake in Courage Under Fire is the way the American military shapes narratives about itself, along with the resentment that ensues when women are placed in charge, personified here by two of Walden’s fellow soldiers, played by Matt Damon and Lou Diamond Phillips. This unfolds through a remarkably dissonant aesthetic that taps deep into the feeling of the mid-90s. For Courage Under Fire effectively plays as two different films, with two vastly different styles. The first is Walden’s story, which plays out, Rashomon-style, from a number of competing perspectives. This film is cacophonous, frenzied and largely shot on mobile and handheld cameras. The second film is Sterling’s story, which is suffused with a muted hush as he follows the investigative trail from one soldier to another, all over the country. Between the two, the lush early 90s meets the hyperkinetic later 90s. Scenes from Sterling’s narrative could be taken straight out of Presumed Innocent, right down to the female protagonist who is only seen in retrospect, and the tinkling piano score, redolent of a conspiracy we can feel but not quite see. By contrast, Walden’s story is like a prototype for Saving Private Ryan, all jagged edges and abrasive textures. This distinction plays out especially vividly on an auditory level – watching the film on a flatscreen television, I had to continually turn the volume down when we jumped back to the combat scenes, and then up when we returned to the present.
In fact, Courage Under Fire doesn’t merely fuse the beginning and end of the 90s, but extends its ambit even further into the past and future. Like Presumed Innocent, and Alan J. Pakula’s second paranoia trilogy more generally, Zwick’s film often feels indebted to the peripatetic momentum of New Hollywood, the muted sense of hiding in plain sight. In an echo of All the President’s Men, Sterling enlists a Washington Post journalist when the military refuse to endorse his further investigation, and meets him in a chilly, bleary DC park that feels transplanted straight from the early 70s. Conversely, the combat scenes are so kinetic and fragmented that they feel more attuned to the resurgence of the Gulf Conflict via the 2000s War in Iraq, along with the more digitally-inflected wave of military films that it produced. This paranoid continuum between New Hollywood and millennial digitality feels like the very last step in traversing Vietnam as a privileged trauma in mainstream cinema, much as Zwick offers us the most dramatic and cacophonous on-screen helicopter combat since Nam films.
Interestingly, the effect of Courage Under Fire is not simply to map a gradual evolution of American cinematic style, or of the national consciousness. For the great paradox of the film is that the more futuristic late 90s hand-held style occurs only in flashback, while the scenes set in the present are characterised by a lusher, more languorous and more traditional approach. Zwick’s film thus evokes the collapse of the remembered 70s into the imminent 00s without the hindsight of current historical periodisation, capturing the flux between different American regimes with a dexterity that makes Courage Under Fire feel remarkably of its time in its willingness to embrace the dissonances and inconsistencies of its time. The most chaotic battle scene is interspersed with Damon’s character recounting it by an idyllic lake, two incommensurate spaces that the film doesn’t exactly resolve so much as set in evocative dialogue with one another – the alienation of digital war cinema and the desperate nostalgia-image of 80s-90s releases that retreated to cosy East Coast lakes for a breath of the past. It’s a schizoid style, perfectly suited to a film that is radical in its scepticism of the industrial-military complex, but made within that complex, and one of Zwick’s low-key gems.