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All's Well That Denzel

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Meg Rigueur: As a female Medevac pilot, Meg Ryan dies so that Denzel Washington can find redemption.

Edward Zwick seeks the truth about Desert Storm with scant help from the Pentagon

By Richard von Busack

LIBERALS WHO make war movies evince conflicted loyalties as they alternate between deploring violence and succumbing to the excitement of battle. They often end up fighting on both sides at the same time. Such directors are better off dealing with "good wars"--the Spanish Civil War (as in Land and Freedom, for example) or World War II.

Courage Under Fire, the first major movie about the Persian Gulf War, acknowledges the hellishness of war while admiring the erectness of the officer's spine. The film is stalemated. It's politically neutral, not questioning the various diplomatic missteps on the part of the United States that encouraged Sadaam Hussein to think he could get away with annexing Kuwait.

In this multiple-recall tale larded with trace elements of A Few Good Men, Denzel Washington plays Lt. Colonel Nathaniel Serling, a withdrawn, solitary drinker assigned to the Pentagon. He has an easy task that will be of great service to the military's image. He's to present the Medal of Honor to a Medevac pilot, Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), killed during the Gulf War.

Because of his bad conscience over his own experiences in Operation Desert Storm, however, Serling decides to find out the true circumstances of Walden's death. As Gen. Hershberg, perennial government malefactor Michael Moriarty all but brays out, "Coverup!" The more obvious villain, a combat veteran named Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips showing off a buffed-out physique, which gets immolated in a four-alarm exit), solves the moral dilemma tidily.

Patrick Sheane Duncan's script is indifferent, and too much flashbacking combined with Washington's less internal than inert performance (the sort of clean acting that made Sidney Poitier such a bore toward the end of his acting career) rob the film of any narrative focus. Ryan's limitations as a dramatic performer, of course, are well known to anybody who has seen one of her movies.

Courage Under Fire was made for the best motives, though--and made without the help of the Pentagon. Director Edward Zwick, of the first-rate Glory, is as politically advanced as anyone in Hollywood. He has, after all, delivered a war movie starring a black man and a woman as the heroes, and his two previous films, Glory (1989) and Legends of the Fall (1994), also included intense, deromanticized battle scenes. Zwick's big-screen work represents such a stretch from his most famous effort as a TV producer and writer--thirtysomething--that it is obvious he's got more than action-movie clichés on his mind.

IF I HAVE a reason to interview Zwick, it is to ask him: What is such a notorious liberal doing making movies about the U.S. Army? It wasn't guilt at not being in Vietnam. "I don't think," he says, "that I have some vestigial hankering after a moment when I might have been tested. I think that it goes further back [to] a boy's own fascination with that set of blood-and-guts circumstances. I would dare to say that I find the same thing interesting in war that interested Homer or Shakespeare or Stephen Crane. It offers this glimpse of human behavior and character in more stripped-down situations, somehow devoid of a lot of the niceties and self-consciousness of modern life."

Zwick says, "I think a lot of times, the movies go to great lengths to try to create circumstances where there's a lot at stake--the Russians stealing a nuclear bomb or someone chasing you and trying to kill you. In war, there is always a reality on top of which one can base a characterization and a set of circumstances. I don't think it's particularly about the hardware or the tactics. It's not as if I'm uninterested in all that, but I think my first instinct is one of the dramatist rather than one of the historian."

Connecting Courage Under Fire with his famous TV work, Zwick continues, "I am deeply interested in ambiguity, which I think was at the heart of thirtysomething. The show was about the dialectics of wanting to be close and wanting to be promiscuous, of wanting to be politically concerned while wanting the material comforts. Unlike the popular view, the military is not a monolith. It, too, is made up of people with very different points of view. I am interested in a view that can include bureaucratic self-protection and legitimate notions of what dignity is."

According to Zwick, at first the Pentagon was pleased to be helping out on a Gulf War movie, but a change of administration demanded editorial changes in the script. "That is where we parted company," he recalls. "I was still able to get firsthand accounts of people who had been there. I met female chopper pilots, the rank and file, people who had driven the tanks in the Gulf. There was a lot for me to draw upon without the official cooperation of the institution."

A certain impromptu resourcefulness saw the director through a difficult shoot. "Happily, I had made several movies without the cooperation of the U.S. government," Zwick explains. "We went into the arms business. We went to Australia and bought 11 old Centurian British tanks, which we shipped to Vancouver and trucked to Texas and then clad in the silhouette of the Abrams tanks." The effort paid off; the Desert Storm sequences, which were shot near El Paso, are the best part of Courage Under Fire.

"For helicopters, we used Cobras instead of Blackhawks, though Cobras were sometimes used in the Gulf War," Zwick continues. "There's a certain amount of sleight of hand, too--the magic of special effects. In the army base, where we see the extraordinary proliferation of men and matériel, that's a matte [shot]. We built Arlington cemetery in Austin, Texas."

Is it possible, or even desirable, I ask, to make an anti-war film? "Let me respond in a different way," Zwick says. "Which is to say, I think the Gulf War was presented as a neat, tidy, surgical, controlled and packaged set of images, and no war is like that. Thousands of Iraqis died, and our boys killed them. And when [our soldiers] were in the war, they were exposed to various things the existence of which we're just discovering now."

No war, not even a high-tech one like the Gulf War, is "is nice or tidy or surgical, and it's a disservice to present it as only that. So, I think that if the Pentagon or the Department of Defense presents it as one set of images, then there is a role for me as a filmmaker to present another set of images."

Whenever two pieces of film are spliced together, Zwick says, "you're creating an editorial. Whether I do it, or the news media does it, we're creating an editorial truth. These images go into the popular debate. I do think it's important to present a set of images that show the cost of the Gulf War."

The military is not a monolith, Zwick says. Neither is the movie business, though we tend to describe it lazily as such. Hollywood includes different temperaments and intellects, from smart, moral men like Zwick to retrograde fools, chair-warmers and tireless strugglers. Maybe the particular tension of Courage Under Fire comes from another below-the-surface question: Can someone entering a business that's so renowned for wastage, connivance and lying reform it from the inside?

Courage Under Fire is a serious attempt to do just that. The film is at pains to present a war fought by women for the benefit of a country where women don't vote. But with its edgelessness, its too-clean views of family life (even the disrupted families are pleasant), its general unwillingness to offend anyone but extremists, Courage Under Fire is still the Hollywood version of the Gulf War.


Courage Under Fire (R; 116 min.), directed by Edward Zwick, written by Patrick Sheane Duncan, photographed by Roger Deakins and starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan.

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From the July 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro

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