In 1991, during the height of the first Gulf War, Captain Karen Walden was killed after her helicopter crashed. The rest of her helicopter crew was rescued shortly afterwards. As word of Walden's heroism reached the upper branches of the U.S. government, the military prepared to award her the Medal of Honor posthumously -- she would be the first woman ever to receive the accolade. Assigned to investigate the exact events surrounding Walden's death, Lt. Colonel Serling, himself having served in the war, interviewed numerous members of Walden's team. But conflicting accounts, plus lingering gender discrimination in the military, soon cast doubt on Walden's integrity. After a controversial inquisition and much soul-searching, it was left to Serling to determine whether Walden should receive the honor, and in doing so, forever impact the legacy of women in the armed forces.
The story described above never happened. But the reason the fictionalized story at the heart of 'Courage Under Fire' remains so effective is because it easily could have. As directed by Edward Zwick (himself no stranger to political filmmaking, with such acclaimed efforts as the Oscar-winning 'Glory,' 'The Last Samurai' and 'Blood Diamond'), 'Courage Under Fire' is one of the more intriguing of recent war movies. By culling historical facts and real-life incidents, melding them with a hot-potato social issue, and then placing it against the backdrop of a then-recent conflict (the film would be the first to deal directly with the 1990 Gulf War), Zwick is able to craft a film that is both topical and universal. The film's questions still resonate over a decade later -- not only of women's place in the military, but how the perception of heroism is often indistinguishable from the truth.
Far from the rah-rah jingoism of a Rambo flick, but not as incendiary as much of Oliver Stone's work, Zwick takes a studied, intellectual approach to the issues at hand. Utilizing a 'Rashomon'-like flashback structure, Serling (Denzel Washington) is the conscience that weaves together the varied, and often contradictory, recollections of Walden's actions. Zwick's approach is well suited to the material, and perfectly underscores the film's themes. What is heroism? What defines it? And how can anyone cast judgment on the bravery of another, especially when so many continue to deny the accomplishments of those of a different gender? Though the film has a resolution, and a satisfying one, Zwick stops short of fully forcing a concrete morality on the material. When there are no absolute answers, the ultimate courage is simply in asking the right questions.
If 'Courage Under Fire' has a flaw, it is that the same flashback structure that makes it so refreshingly ambiguous also leaves it rather inert as drama. Walden (Meg Ryan, in a rare action role) is kept at such arms length from the events swirling around her that we never get to know her as an individual. Perhaps that is part of the point Zwick is arguing -- the person has become an emblem, at the expense of humanity and truth. But it hardly makes us feel much for her personal fate, either way. It is also rather odd from a narrative point of view to have your two main leads never meet. Granted, the story doesn't call for it, but Washington, the fine actor he is, sometimes struggles to relay Walden's humanity through facial expressions, rather than it being dramatized onscreen -- an almost impossible challenge for any actor. Despite such misgivings, 'Courage Under Fire' remains a rarity for me -- a war film that challenges preconceptions rather than just reinforcing blind patriotism. Whatever side of the political fence you sit on, 'Courage Under Fire' won't cut you any slack.
Fox continues to flip-flop between the MPEG-2 and AVC MPEG-4 codecs on its Blu-ray releases, and for 'Courage Under Fire,' they chose a BD-25 single-layer/MPEG-2 combo that delivers very fine results.
The 1.85:1 widescreen image is quite sharp, and surprisingly does not look very dated for a film produced in 1996. Colors are vibrant but not oversaturated, with smooth hues and lovely fleshtones. Sharpness is superior for a catalog title, with only a bit of softness on select shots here or there. Daylight scenes definitely fare the best -- the desert scenes are fantastic, with a great sense of depth and detail -- even small ridges and crags in the rocky landscapes was clearly visible. Grain and noise are kept at a minimum, though not completely absent.
Unfortunately, there are a few caveats. I noticed considerable edge enhancement -- more than I'm used to seeing on a next-gen release. Slight halos around high-contrast objects caused a bit of shimmering, such as bright sunlight reflecting off rocks, or the medals on the lapel of a soldier's uniform. The transfer can also be a bit dark in interior and subdued scenes. Fall-off to black is a bit steep, which hampers shadow delineation. There is also some brightness wavering inherent in the print on occasion. It's not excessive, but it is noticeable. Even so, 'Courage Under Fire' earns a solid four-star video rating.
'Courage Under Fire' features DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track, with its 1.5mbps DTS core accessible on current Blu-ray hardware. Despite that limitation, it is still a strong mix, especially since the film is now a decade old.
It's certainly a loud soundtrack. The flashback battle scenes deliver some serious artillery. The subwoofer really cranks -- gunshots, explosions, and the roar of tanks and helicopters all deliver considerable low bass frequencies. Dynamics are also hefty, with discrete sounds quite realistic, and not too bright or artificial. I was also impressed with the use of very quiet sounds in loud scenes -- during the pivotal battle flashback about midway through the picture, soft, distant gunfire sounds can be heard isolated in specific surround channels, and the result is very effective. Conversely, surrounds are appropriately subdued during non-action scenes, which gives the mix a bit of a schizophrenic quality, so atmosphere is not the greatest. Also a detriment is that dialogue is too low in the mix -- I had to frequently adjust my volume control to compensate, which got quite annoying, as this is a movie where every line of dialogue furthers the story (you don't want to miss a word). Those complaints aside, sonically 'Courage Under Fire' still holds up nicely.
'Courage Under Fire' is a pretty slim Blu-ray release, but then so was the standard-def DVD release.
The only real extra is the screen-specific audio commentary with director Edward Zwick. He's nothing if not prepared, if a bit studied in his dry, direct voice. It's a very strong track, though, with Zwick covering in considerable detail all aspects of the movie. The historical background, the casting, the shooting, the challenges in creating believable Iraqi locations in the Texas and Mojave deserts, and the filmmakers' commitment to ensuring complete military authenticity -- Zwick doesn't let anything slip by. Given the lack of any other major supplements, this is a recommended listen even for casual fans of the film.
The only other goodie is the film's Theatrical Trailer in full 1080p video, plus spots for five other Fox Blu-ray titles. Note that the standard DVD release also featured a making-of featurette, but since it ran only 6 minutes and was really just a glorified commercial, its absence here is no real loss.
'Courage Under Fire' is an interesting (if somewhat forgotten) entry in the war movie genre. More of a drama than an action spectacle, it confronts some probing questions about the nature of heroism, and our military's responsibilities to its soldiers. As a Blu-ray release, it is a strong effort from Fox. The transfer is better than I expected, and the soundtrack is nothing if not loud. Granted, the extras are slim, but then they were meager on the standard-def release as well, which this Blu-ray version clearly trumps. Well worth a look.