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Courage Under Fire



Military drama deploys plenty of violence, swearing.
  • Review Date: September 9, 2010
  • Rated: R
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 1996
  • Running Time: 117 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

The military setting brings out themes of the slippery nature of "truth" in battle heroics and taking responsibility for one's actions -- even in a desperate situation under dangerous enemy fire. Along with it is the idea of sacrifice, bereaved families, and under-the-radar grief in war causalities (the hero snubs a Presidential ceremony to instead privately comfort a lost soldier's grieving relatives).

Positive role models

Serling -- despite his on-off drinking problem -- represents a dutiful Army man in the modern, multi-racial armed forces, digging for the truth, even when it hurts (and when his superiors order him to back off). Not quite a recruiting-poster look at the US military, as officers cover up the truth of a sordid incident for glory-propaganda, and Army soldiers turn guns on each other, accidentally and on purpose. Some are addicts. Flashbacks toy with viewer preconceptions of woman warrior Karen Waldon (a divorced single mother), but ultimately portray her positively.


Battlefield violence includes characters set on fire and shot at close range and bleeding. There is a spectacular, explosive suicide via car-train collision.


One off-color reference about "humping cheerleaders."  Hunky guys in a locker room.


The s-word, the f-word, "ass," "Jesus Christ," the c-word (as pertaining to females), the racist slur "ragheads."


 The hero uses Apple laptops.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Characters smoke. Serling drinks to steady his nerves after combat flashbacks and is accused/blackmailed about being an alcoholic. Soldiers in a VA hospital take pills and IV medication, sometimes to excess. One character confesses to being an IV drug abuser (which may or may not have been a consequence of war trauma).

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that violence and death in this war drama includes gunfire casualties at close range (with blood), a helicopter crash, and a car wreck -- the latter actually being a suicide. One character is a drug addict, and the hero has a drinking problem (but seems to kick the habit). Swearing is R-level, with the f-bomb and the c-bomb dropped on a few significant occasions, and there's one use of an anti-Arab slur. The script is not exactly anti-military, but lethally mutinous actions happen, and undercurrents persist of generals and Pentagon spin doctors covering up and suppressing the truth.

Parents say

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What's the story?

COURAGE UNDER FIRE takes place during "Operation Desert Storm" against Saddam Hussein's Iraq during the first Gulf War (historical background isn't downloaded in detail, but isn't absolutely essential). Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) is in command during a tank battle in which US guns accidentally mow down their own troops. With that shadow over him, the guilt-ridden officer gets a potential career-mending assignment: to approve the official report on war heroine Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), killed in action after a brilliant helicopter rescue of another unit under siege from Iraqis. As the first female American officer up for a Congressional Medal of Honor, it's a PR coup for the Pentagon -- but as Serling finds inconsistencies in the survivor's testimonies, he locks horns with his own superiors to learn the awful truth of what really happened to Capt. Walden in the heat of battle.

Is it any good?


On the positive side, this sturdy drama has no obvious political agenda, which is refreshing for a Hollywood film. Nonetheless, there's a mildly by-the-numbers feel, kind of like a deluxe JAG or NCIS episode, as Serling bravely digs for the truth, no matter what. He's so idealized that even his flaws of heavy drinking and a possible "friendly fire" tragedy barely tarnish his halo.

In an interesting gambit, probably from the much-imitated Japanese drama Rashomon, we see Capt. Walden in different POVs, from a John Wayne-level roughneck to a terrified girl in over her head. The different viewpoints could spark an interesting discussion about women's roles in the military.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the decisions the characters make. What would viewers have done in Serling's place? What about the pinned-down, panicked soldiers?

  • The concept of women in the American Armed Forces is still fairly new and took a long time to become instituted. Ask young viewers if they consider female soldiers to be a touchy issue or not.

  • Inform viewers too young to remember about "Operation Desert Storm" and Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Could what is shown in Courage Under Fire have taken place in other wars? Why or why not?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:July 14, 1996
DVD release date:December 26, 2000
Cast:Denzel Washington, Lou Diamond Phillips, Matt Damon, Meg Ryan
Director:Edward Zwick
Studio:Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Run time:117 minutes
MPAA rating:R
MPAA explanation:war violence and language

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