Courage Under Fire

Courage Under Fire (1996)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips, Matt Damon, Scott Glenn
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Trailer and TV Spots

Released in 1996, Edward Zwick’s ’Courage Under Fire’ was the first major motion picture to use the events of the 1990-91 Gulf War as a backdrop. While the setting may be contemporary, the issues tackled in the film are universal to all powerful war movies – the terror and confusion of combat; the internal struggle between cowardice and bravery; racial and class (and in this case gender) strife; and the overwhelming sense of betrayal by those in command that the frontline soldier feels.

In the film, Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) is ordered to investigate the events surrounding the death of Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) who is being considered for a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor. The ramifications of his investigation drive Serling to dig deep into Walden’s, and his own, wartime experiences. The story that is told through flashbacks to Walden’s pre-war life and the terrifying firefight that cost her life reveals more about human nature than perhaps anyone involved cared to learn.

Although shot mostly in Texas and the Mojave desert, the film creates an authentic atmosphere of the Iraqui desert planes. But ultimately it is the emotional impact that carries the film and with a cast of Meg Ryan and Denzel Washington, the filmmakers just had the right hunch. Especially Washington’s portrayal of tethering on the brink of his own life, is marvelous to behold. A man battling his own demons while facing someone else’s, the actor does a fantastic job to make Serling a palpable and believable character.

’Courage Under Fire’ is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the <$16x9,anamorphic>ally enhanced transfer is stellar. Colors are accurate and fully saturated throughout – handling everything from the stark desert landscapes to the rainbow of multi-colored ribbons on a military uniform with equal aplomb. Black levels are accurate as well and even the darkest nighttime battle scenes come across in fine detail. Compression artifacts and other mastering imperfections are non-existent. Some film grain is evident here and there but doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the picture.

As part of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s new <$DTS,DTS> line-up, ’Courage Under Fire’ offers the listener a plethora of audio options. Basic <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2.0 Surround mixes are available in both English and French while an incredibly dynamic <$5.1,5.1 mix> is offered in both Dolby Digital and DTS versions. Both <$5.1,5.1 channel> mixes feature an amazing amount of directionality that keeps the full set of speakers constantly engaged. The LFE channel really comes alive during the armor battles and reaches far lower than my system can measure. Dynamic range is quite remarkable as well and everything from the soft click of a shoe heel on the floor to the roar of an M1A1 loosing a volley comes across clearly with no distortion whatsoever. The transparency of these track is simply spectacular.

Now for the inevitable Dolby Digital versus DTS face-off. Both mixes are excellent and I can’t say that I clearly prefer one over the other. The Dolby Digital track has a more realistic bass level while the DTS utilizes an exaggerated, booming LFE for maximum impact. Imaging was a tad better in the DTS version but not remarkably so. Whichever <$5.1,5.1 channel> mix you choose, it is sure to sound great.

’Courage Under Fire’ also offers a few bonus features. First up is a running commentary with director Ed Zwick. I found the track to be very informative as Zwick clearly prepared for this session and has a lot to say about the film, its production and the events surrounding the subject matter. Next up is a short, 6-minute promotional featurette that offers the usual smiling lead actors talking about the movie, and is nothing more than a promo reel for the movie. Finally, three theatrical trailers and three TV spots are included – unfortunately all are full-frame and feature Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks only.

I found ’Courage Under Fire’ to be a rewarding film on a number of levels. Its accurate portrayal of modern armored combat is second to none, while its exploration of much deeper, more human, issues of gender, race, bravery, and betrayal elevate it well above most war movie fare. Edward Zwick has worked the same magic here as he did in ’Glory’ and created a film that refuses to be categorized.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s new DVD features top-notch video and audio and the inclusion of both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtracks should make fans of both formats more than happy. Although not advertised as a special edition, ’Courage Under Fire’ does include a few extras to round things out that make it even more worth your while. The film itself is a powerful, moving drama while the DVD is yet another excellent release from Fox, a studio that continues to outdo itself.