Saturday, 1 October 2011

Courage Under Fire

I once read Robert McKee’s Story. All about the structure of film storytelling device they use. I can’t remember much about it now. But I suspect Courage Under Fire (1996) is using every trick in the book. It’s one of those perfectly plotted films. Where everything just falls too neatly together.

So here we have Denzil Washington playing Colonel Nat Serling, a former cavalry officer sidelined after a hushed-up ‘friendly-fire’ incident where he accidentally killed his own soldiers. His new desk job is to investigate soldiers eligibility for medals.

Washington is asked to investigate a case of a helicopter pilot (Meg Ryan) who’s been nominated for the medal of honour for her actions during the first Gulf War. However, as Washington digs into the circumstances the apparent open and shut story of heroism becomes more complex. It transpires that Meg Ryan may have been killed by ‘friendly-fire’.

So we’ve got Washington, wracked with guilt from his role in killing his own troops, investigating the death of a soldier whose has herself been killed by ‘friendly-fire’. Oh, the irony!

With the major story elements established the resolution of the plot is predictable. In order to properly honour the dead soldier Washington must expose the truth about how Meg Ryan died, while at the same time make peace with himself by revealing what really happened in his own battlefield accident.

All the plot strands are neatly tied up in a pretty bow by the end of the film. Washington apologises to the parents of the soldier he killed, reconciles himself with his family, and Meg Ryan’s daughter gets to collect her mother’s posthumous medal of honour in teary finale. Yuk.

Director Ed Zwick uses Washington’s investigation to slowly reveal the circumstances behind the death of Meg Ryan’s chopper pilot. As Denzil interviews the different survivors we see the events unfold from their different perspectives.

We pick the action up with Meg Ryan flying a team of medics in to rescue the survivors a downed helicopter. The soldiers are pinned down by the wreckage of their chopper by advancing Iraqi soldiers. The troops are supported by a tank who pops off a shell which hit’s the already wrecked chopper causing it to explode again.


Director Ed Zwick should get kudos for a clever little double bluff here. You think you’ve missed your chance of an exploding helicopter, but actually he’s thrown you a fake and blows the wreckage up in emphatic fashion. Nice.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Blowing up an already blown-up helicopter. I guess it makes retakes easier.

Do passengers survive?

Yes. They already out of the helicopter when it blows up.


Lou Diamond Phillips has a meaty supporting role in the film. It’s always nice to see him on screen. Young Guns seemed like an important film when I was younger. I’ve obviously revised my opinion since then.


Scott Glenn plays a reporter investigating the cover-up of Denzil Washington’s ‘friendly-fire’ incident. He’s an immediately compelling screen presence with his lean, rangey, and craggy features. Sadly, he’s barely given anything to do here. A waste.

Interesting fact

Apparently Matt Damon lost 40 pounds to play the role of one of the medics who survives the chopper crash. I’m not sure why he bothered. It’s hardly a key plot point. More fool him.

Review by Jafo

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Courage Under Fire. Download it on iTunes, Podomatic, YourListen, Stitcher, and Acast. Or listen right here.

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