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M(eg) I(n) A(ction)

The "starring Meg Ryan" line suggests that Courage Under Fire is the moppet's annual Oscar bid (a la Flesh and Bone or When a Man Loves a Woman). But Being a Serious Actress is not what this movie's all about. It belongs not to Ryan but to Denzel Washington, and it's not an awards bid; it's a military recruiting film in the grand tradition of Top Gun and a video-shelf full of forties films. Ryan's serious moments are only incidental in this manly man movie. The key characters are guys who bellow "yes, sir!" shoot guns and drink whiskey. And -- oh, yes -- they squint meaningfully while struggling with moral dilemmas.

Female moviegoers left cold by such boy stuff must content themselves by studying the film's fine specimens of manly men from every age group. Middle age is front and center, represented by Denzel Washington as our tormented hero, Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling, a former tank commander now relegated to a military backwater, the Pentagon's Awards and Decorations office. His image-conscious superiors assign him to prepare a report recommending a posthumous Medal of Honor for Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) -- and anxious to create a female martyr from the Al Bathra conflict, the Pentagon's spin doctors don't particularly care whether Walden deserved the medal. Washington is profoundly handsome, and as Serling, his officer's blend of old-fashioned spit and polish and contemporary sensitivity is incredibly sexy. When the top brass orders Serling to stop worrying about the truth and give the American people "one little shiny piece of something to believe in," Serling gets in the general's face with a question: "Walden or Al Bathra?" (The general fires back, "Both!")

Youth and experience each garner supporting roles. Serling tries to wring information from a very buff Lou Diamond Phillips, as a young soldier who fought alongside Walden. His obsidian eyes and slanting cheekbones give him the appearance of an appealing serpent, and his talk is all terse Army lingo wrapped in tightlipped smiles.

Serling himself is investigated by a Washington Post reporter, the eternally lean and lupine Scott Glenn. (In this movie, even the reporter is part Army man: Glenn's character saw combat in Vietnam.) His good-natured, wry civilian provides a pleasing contrast to Washington's and Phillips' hard-muscled, hardheaded charms.

Our characters all struggle with moral dilemmas. Serling, for instance, won't recommend Walden for a medal he's not sure she deserves because he is desperate to get something right, to somehow atone for his wartime mistake. One night in Al Bathra, he ordered his men to fire on what he thought was an enemy T-54 tank. It turned out to be an American M1A1 -- and Serling quick-fried a crew of his own men.

For his Medal of Honor report, Serling interviews Walden's Medevac crew. Their stories don't jibe. Serling realizes that they're fighting their own demons, and we realize that the mystery is not just what happened to Walden, but also why Altameyer (Seth Gilliam), Ilario (Matt Damon), Monfriez (Phillips) and Rady (Tim Guinee) tell different stories.

All this ambiguity irks Serling; he didn't want any more complications in his life. When he starts throwing back little airplane bottles of Scotch and staying away from home, his wife (Regina Taylor) carefully explains to him that learning how to be an Army wife was extremely difficult, but that if he doesn't shape up, she could unlearn real fast.

As Walden, Meg Ryan doesn't get any speeches that good. She's dead the whole time, so we meet her only in photographs and flashbacks, filtered Rashomon-like through other characters' memories. Along with Serling, we must struggle to decide which images are accurate.

Ryan displays the range she employed for her multiple roles in Joe Versus the Volcano, flashing her lopsided smile variously as a loving mother, a dutiful daughter, a tough-as-nails officer and a woman who cracks under pressure, depending on whose story we're hearing. She pulls off the loving mother and dutiful daughter, and doesn't embarrass herself when she's playing butch and having a breakdown.

Courage Under Fire as a whole is on par with Ryan's performance. Things that are easy to do -- emotional button-pushing, for instance -- are done well. Things that are tricky -- like having different accounts of one event finally add up, Rashomon-like, to a single story -- are not done so well.

But you know, everyone involved, such as Ryan, is trying really hard, and they really mean well. And maybe you're feeling warm toward the military because you have friends, relatives or a mom skipping around land mines in Bosnia. And since you're settled there in the dark with your Sour Patch Kids and your popcorn, instead of giving up on the movie and its military heroes, it's more satisfying to help Courage Under Fire by filling in blanks it should have filled.

Courage Under Fire.
Directed by Edward Zwick. Starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan.
Rated R.
116 minutes.

 
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