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Seeking Past Glory with Courage Under Fire

Let’s flash back to a thinking-person’s progressive-minded war drama in which Edward Zwick directs a conflicted Denzel Washington to tackle the inequities of the day—and to shed a single tear at his moment of deepest trauma. You’d be forgiven for thinking first of the Academy-Award winning Glory, the Civil War drama depicting the Massachusetts 54th all-black regiment in which Washington served as runaway slave-turned-Union-soldier Private Silas Trip, who would carry the flag on the attack at Fort Wagner. However, we’re looking back to July 1996, when Zwick and Washington would reteam for a second high-minded military drama, this time to tackle the misogyny and misinformation of the Gulf War. Though their Courage Under Fire misfired in its aim to tell a female soldier’s story of valor, its studious characterization of the military’s manipulation of mediated images makes it still an uncannily prescient and appropriately cautionary tale 25 years later.

In 1989, Glory had been a significant success for Zwick and Washington both. Drawing considerable attention to the black soldiers who had fought for the Union in the Civil War, the film made for a modest box-office success and earned considerable critical acclaim that led to five Academy Award nominations, including wins for Washington for Best Supporting Actor as well as cinematography and sound design. Its progressive sentiments were generally lauded as well despite its dependence on the white-savior trope of a callow Matthew Broderick cast as the film’s primary protagonist and point-of-view character, Lt. Robert Gould Shaw, who led the 54th on the charge at Fort Wagner and whose letters provided the historical fact and narrative structure of the script. But it was Washington who stole the show, as his Private Trip suffers a flogging that brings him to a single tear—and his first Academy Award.

In this image from Glory, Denzel Washington is depicted as Private Trip shedding a single tear.
In Glory, Denzel Washington’s Private Trip suffers a flogging that brings him to a single tear—and his first Academy Award.

Despite some reservation about the film’s historical inaccuracies and dependence upon a white protagonist’s perspective, reclaiming those Glory days must have been on Zwick’s and Washington’s minds when they reteamed seven years later for Courage Under Fire. The third wave of feminism had begun in earnest onscreen in the early 1990s, with the massive hit Thelma and Louise featured on the cover of Time magazine and nearly every film genre, and especially those most traditionally masculinist (action, war, neo-noir, the Western), seeing scripts with newly-empowered female protagonists. Adapted from his own novel by Patrick Sheane Duncan, Courage Under File would be the first film to engage the Gulf War of just a few years past.

The Gulf War made for a notable topic in several ways. Engaged in August 1990 by the U.S. and a coalition of 34 nations to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Operation Desert Storm was called by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein “the mother of all battles.” The war was fought first in the air, then on the ground, but very much also with this kind of rhetorical flourish of words and images. United States military brass, fully aware of the lingering sentiment against the last full-scale intervention following the wildly unpopular and ultimately unsuccessful Vietnam War, sought to promote Desert Storm as its antithesis. Theirs was a carefully censored and mediated effort. A Pentagon document entitled Annex Foxtrot established a set of protocols. Most press information was to come from briefings organized by the military. Journalists were embedded in troops and conducted carefully censored interviews with soldiers. Visits were conducted in the presence of officers and subject to both approval and censorship.

One consequence of this new set of policies from a military eager to avoid the public relations mistakes of Vietnam was that the Gulf War became a televisual spectacle . Nonstop cable news coverage displayed real-time imagery of aerial strikes illuminating the nighttime Baghdad sky, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf strode the podium to convey carefully selected messaging directly to the American people. Exuding confidence and gravitas, the messaging depicted American forces as swiftly efficient and overwhelming. By the end of February 1991, victory was declared, with some 20-26,000 Iraqi military personnel and nearly 4,000 civilians killed. U.S. casualties were far fewer: 294. Thirty-five U.S. lives were lost to friendly fire. The objectives were—both in Kuwait and on the airwaves—largely achieved.

The Gulf War also deployed gender-integrated troops in unprecedented numbers. Following the 1973 creation of the all-volunteer U.S. military, recruitment and enlistment of women and minorities increased. Assignments had become increasingly technologized, and by 1991 more than 40,000 women were deployed in “noncombat” roles. Gen. Schwarzkopf praised those women for their “magnificent work,” but at the same time the Gulf War would generate debate about gender integration and sexual harassment in the military. Those debates became more volatile when the infamous Tailhook scandal of 1991 saw 83 women officers sexually abused at a Naval convention, leading to several high-level resignations and dozens of punitive actions. Clearly, the presence of women in the military was not universally embraced. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s 2012 documentary The Invisible War would study the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and abuse throughout the military.

Released July 12, 1996, Courage Under Fire was the first major U.S. release to depict the Gulf War. Washington by this time was no longer a “promising young actor” but an Oscar-winning, well-established, seasoned actor and box-office draw. (And one who should have been holding a second Oscar for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.) Zwick’s budget was nearly three times that of Glory’s. Washington’s salary was $10 million. Meg Ryan, at the time “America’s Sweetheart” and a proven box office draw in romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle, earned $6 million. With Courage Under Fire, Zwick’s focus would be the two conditions that had made the Gulf War distinct from other U.S. conflicts: its mediated messaging and its gender-mixed forces.

In this image from the opening credits sequence of Courage Under Fire, the text reads "An Edward Zwick film" over images of nighttime Gulf War aerial strikes.
Courage Under Fire’s opening credits sequence echoes the televisual spectacle that the Gulf War became.

From the very start, the film’s opening credits suggest the focus on the mediated message, as a montage of news clips and voices characterizes battle in the Gulf as a nighttime television show replete with exciting imagery and dramatic pronouncements. On the ground, Washington’s character, Lt. Col. Nat Serling, loses his friend Boylar to friendly fire he himself commanded in the film’s only present-time battle sequence. That very notion of friendly fire foreshadows the inquiry and investigation to come. While grounded, Serling is given what appears to be a simple public-relations mission on the surface: to determine whether, in fact, Medevac Huey commander Capt. Karen Walden (Ryan) deserves the Medal of Honor, a distinction Duncan’s script is careful to mansplain has never been awarded to a woman for combat. (Civil War Surgeon Mary Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor, though not for combat, and hers was rescinded shortly before her death but then reinstated posthumously. She remains today the only woman so honored.)

In this image from Courage Under Fire, Col. Nat Serling (Denzel Washington), dressed in combat fatigues and a helmet with goggles, looks to the sky.
Grounded after a friendly-fire incident, Lt. Col. Nat Serling is assigned a public-relations investigation.

Twenty-five years later, Courage Under Fire’s critique of military messaging remains well aimed. Today, political leaders use disinformation as a rhetorical tactic to manipulate constituents, sometimes with utter disregard for truth. Even an unprecedented attack on the nation’s capitol by armed insurgents, incited by political leaders, and witnessed by its citizens is now the subject of a gaslighting campaign. Part of Serling’s challenge is to uncover the truth of events that may challenge the military’s public image as one that is inclusive and integrated. Scott Glenn plays a journalist—a character type rarely seen in the genre—whose authority depends not on his journalist training but his own military credentials, and Bronson Pinchot plays a public relations expert whose character sees Walden’s death not as a tragic and avoidable loss, but was a promotional coup for the military’s branding efforts. (The following decade, the U.S. military would similarly seek to inspire confidence in an integrated fighting force with its bizarrely concocted and truth-impaired promotion of the Jessica Lynch story.)

In this image from Courage Under Fire, Capt. Walden (Meg Ryan) is depicted in fatigues firing her weapon from behind a rock formation.
Meg Ryan’s character Capt. Walden is ultimately vindicated and her Medal of Honor awarded, albeit posthumously.

But while Courage Under Fire’s critique of military messaging is pointed and purposeful, its literal ghosting of its female protagonist makes it a far less feminist film than it intends. Ryan’s Walden is certainly validated by its conclusion as the poster girl for third-wave feminism and the gender-integrated military, her character having been vindicated and the historic Medal of Honor awarded. After all, superstar Meg Ryan wasn’t going to take a role that betrayed her character as the misogynist slur Lou Diamond Phillips’ Staff Sergeant John Monfriez would call her in a vile moment of turf-marking.

The courageous Walden appears only in flashback, only through others’ memories of her at home and in combat. Her widower and parents tell us of her parenting skill. Her compatriots, depending upon their levels of fealty to military ideology or to their interactions with her personally, testify to her action under duress or “courage under fire.” The Rashomon approach to storytelling, with several conflicting, partial accounts makes for a provocative narrative, but Courage Under Fire simply fails at telling the story of the female soldier its script (and promotions) aims to center. Ryan’s Walden is literally ghosted, a photo in a dossier who may or may not get an award. Whether she deserves that award or not matters less for its own sake and more to Serling’s own quest for absolution—and moves Washington to that same single tear that earned him Oscar “Glory” seven years earlier.

In this image from Courage Under Fire, Col. Serling (Denzel Washington) sheds a single tear as he faces the camera.
Col. Serling is moved to the same single tear that helped Denzel Washington earn an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Glory seven years earlier.

Save for the awkwardness of seven or eight men trying to get a woman’s story right, Courage Under Fire has its pleasures. Its big names, Washington and Ryan, brought audiences into theaters along with generally positive reviews. Its opening saw it trailing the crowd-pleasing Independence Day juggernaut, released the weekend before, but Courage Under Fire went on to earn over $100m in box office receipts worldwide. Ryan had a tough role, having to perform each man’s “version” of her character, but reviewers largely accepted her as Capt. Walden. Soon, though, she was back in her niche in You’ve Got Mail.

Alongside the sympathetic, earnest Washington and the weathered Glenn, Philips and Michael Moriarity make for motivated villains with tasty lines to chew. So too Pinchot, who oozes a naïve smarm as a PR flack. A young and pre-Good Will Hunting Matt Damon lost 40 pounds in 100 days to play his opiate-addicted Specialist Ilario. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is typically effective whether staging nighttime ground combat, a high-key aerial rescue in broad daylight, or any of the film’s multiple and slightly mawkish conclusions. All told, Courage Under Fire is slickly scripted, cast, and shot.

In this image from Courage Under Fire, Capt. Walden (Meg Ryan) is depicted in military dress in a dossier.
Capt. Karen Walden’s story of valor exists only in men’s memories and dossiers.

That slickness can at times occlude the film’s seriousness. Although it concludes with mawkish mush dressed in military and patriotic iconography, Courage Under Fire takes seriously a number of problems faced by end-of-the-century enlistees and officers. Though generally silent on race, it affirms the ideal of an integrated fighting force. It acknowledges the toxicity of a masculinity unable to cope with the presence of women in the workplace. It depicts the very serious trauma of combat that leads too often to abuse, addiction, self-harm, and suicide. It enforces the very real fallout of the kinds of friendly fire that accounted for lives lost in the Gulf War.

What gnaws, ultimately, twenty-five years later, is that for all its accomplishments—and there are many—Zwick’s film couldn’t find the courage to tell a woman’s war story. Courage Under Fire may decry the manipulation of Walden’s image for the sake of military messaging, but it can’t find a way to lend Ryan’s character her own story. Something similar happened in Glory. Shaw’s letters are convenient for narrative perspective and historical veracity, and Trip’s character is a well-drawn fictional invention. But the black soldier who actually carried the flag at Fort Wagner—Sergeant William H. Carney? His story, fascinating as it is, isn’t told in Glory. (Carney would, four decades later, be awarded the Medal of Honor.)

The same is the case with Courage Under Fire. During the Gulf War, Major Marie Rossi was the first woman in American military history to serve in combat as an aviation unit commander. She died when her helicopter crashed and was later buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery. Just like Glory could not quite tell the story of the black man who carried the flag in the attack on Fort Wagner, Courage Under Fire couldn’t quite foreground the story of a woman who died, courageously, in combat. Despite Courage Under Fire‘s progressive intentions, and despite its excellent cast, complex script, and pointed critique of military messaging, the story it purports to tell of a woman’s valor exists only in men’s memories and dossiers.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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