We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

and David Van Taylor

In such landmark films as Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Resnais’ Muriel, the qualities of cinema proved ideal for depicting the vagaries of memory. Set in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Courage Under Fire attempts a similar approach in the case of Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), a chopper pilot who’s in line to become the first woman to receive the Medal of Honor. Unlike its artfully ambiguous predecessors, however, Courage doesn’t let the messiness of war—or memory—prevent it from ultimately tying everything up as neatly as in an episode of Perry Mason.

Courage has been touted as an adult alternative to this summer’s carnival-ride action movies, and by comparison to The Rock or Independence Day it’s fairly grown-up. War is not glamorized and violence is not trivialized in director Edward Zwick’s film, in which bad things happen to top-billed people. (When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless in Seattle cutie-pie Ryan not only gets hit by napalm, she gets called a “cunt.”) Walden is dead by the time Col. Nat Serling (Denzel Washington) is assigned to see if she deserves the medal—Walden is seen only in flashback—and Serling’s task is underscored by his own guilt at having ordered an attack on one of his own unit’s tanks.

Tormented by the death of a close friend in that incident in the Kuwait desert, Serling is estranged from his family and drinking heavily as he begins the investigation into Walden’s conduct after her Medevac helicopter was shot down. Heavy political pressure (personified unconvincingly by Bronson Pinchot as a smarmy White House aide) is being applied to Serling’s superior, Gen. Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), who’s unhappy that the colonel is slow in finishing his report. But Serling is concerned about the conflicting testimony offered by the hard-bitten Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), one of the few survivors of Walden’s crew, and insists on prolonging his inquiry.

Serling has one other problem: Washington Post reporter Tony Gartner (Scott Glenn), a tough but sensitive Vietnam vet who’s pursuing information on the friendly-fire episode. The colonel reacts coldly to Gartner’s questioning but gradually realizes that he and the reporter share one crucial quality: They both want “the whole hard truth,” something in which Hershberg and his political bosses show little interest. (Washington, at least, is little more believable demanding veracity than was Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, one direct Courage precursor.) The moment at which a stiff-necked career military officer and a dogged Washington Post reporter reach common ground, of course, is the point at which Patrick Sheane Duncan’s script spirals out of the realm of probability.

Zwick’s previous movie was Legends of the Fall, whose exaltation of rugged American-frontier individualism was fevered even by Hollywood standards. Courage is not quite so overheated—although one character does embrace a spectacularly macho death—but it’s equally preposterous. Military officers tend not to launch their own investigations in violation of their superiors’ orders, or to conspire with newspaper reporters to reveal The Truth, and with good reason. In the real world, such insubordinate officers are unlikely to be redeemed by a last-minute flashback that reveals how their quick thinking under fire saved many American lives.

If Duncan’s script is contrived, it’s matched by the cheesiness of Zwick’s staging. Shot principally in Texas, Courage doesn’t include a single convincing shot of Washington, where much of the film is set. A meeting on the Mall was clearly filmed in some state capital (apparently Austin), while Serling’s Bethesda hotel room features a view of the Capitol that indicates it’s barely a block away. For a presidential ceremony, Zwick shoots his Bush impersonator from a distance, then out of focus, and finally from behind; he avoids actually showing the actor so ostentatiously that it would have been less distracting to have cast Whoopi Goldberg in the role.

Handled by less slippery filmmakers, the Gulf War could yield a rich meditation on truth and illusion. After all, the conflict was less a military success than a triumph of media manipulation. Courage, however, is no more interested in what really happened than are Serling’s superiors. While extolling the moral courage of its protagonists, the film reiterates the same heroic lone-wolf legends that Hollywood—and Zwick—have long offered as a stirring surrogate for actual individualism of thought or action.

Oliver North’s 1994 campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held (then and now) by Chuck Robb was a natural for documentarians: It attracted two sets of cameras to Virginia and yielded two films, Ollie’s Army and The Perfect Candidate. The former hasn’t arrived here yet, while the latter, reviewed in Washington City Paper when it screened in Filmfest DC, opens this week at the Key.

R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor’s lively film focuses on the former Marine colonel who thought lying to Congress about the Iran-contra affair was “a neat idea” that would endear him to Virginia voters. While Robb barely rises to the level of lesser of the two evils, the candidate who looks smartest and most articulate is former Gov. Douglas Wilder (who ultimately dropped out to support Robb, his longtime antagonist). The film isn’t especially hard on North, who spends a lot of his campaign time flaunting his Christian humility. Mostly, the candidate just stands there looking upright as he takes what turned out to be devastating hits; when he declares himself “the most investigated man on this planet,” Wilder tellingly retorts that “there might be a very good reason for that.”

Cutler also worked on The War Room, the documentary about Clinton’s campaign that stressed political strategist James Carville. Candidate gives similar weight to North campaign adviser Mark Goodin, who proves sharp, irreverent, and witty, even if his notion that North actually belongs in the Senate is hard to credit. Goodin and his cohorts gleefully torment Robb’s campaign by hinting that they’re going to unveil one of the “bimbos” with whom the senator allegedly consorted, and their wicked enthusiasm is contagious. Both the North strategists and the film benefit from the fact that Robb comes across as a stiff, two-faced dork; when he avows that for him “truth is an absolute,” even his loyal wife looks incredulous.

As in Courage, the film’s supporting star is a Washington Post reporter, Richmond bureau chief Don Baker, who allows that “it’s important to get [everyday people’s] opinions in the paper, even if we don’t understand them.” His questioning of Robb about striker-replacement legislation is a classic sequence. Ultimately, both Baker and Goodin seem surprised by Robb’s victory. It’s always fun to watch the experts get flummoxed, and it’s to Cutler and Van Taylor’s credit that Candidate makes the spectacle almost as immediate as it was on election night.CP