"Courage Under Fire" is a modern war film that has some action segments from the Gulf War. But, it mostly is a drama about what happens to people during war. In this instance, the effects of mistakes, insubordination, cowardice, deceit, selfishness, lack of team support, and the results of confusion and pressure under combat. All of these are part of a fictional story that takes place during the Aug. 1990-Feb. 1991 war and the months afterward. Two separate fictional stories from Desert Storm, the military operation of the war, come together in this film.
It's an engaging story and plot. All of the cast are very good in their roles. The camera work and all production values are excellent. The film isn't a flag-waiver; nor is it anti-military. But it is a good film to show the horrors of war and what can and probably does happen with mistakes. I think it's a good film to show the reality of politics, military order, dedicated career men and women in the military, and the sometimes foibles of command and leadership. It also shows the dark side of human nature that not many war movies show, understandably – in the rebellion, cowardice and self-interest of some GIs.
After Iraq invaded the small Persian Gulf nation of Kuwait in 1990, a United Nations resolution condemned the action. That led to a coalition force of 35 nations to drive the Iraqis out and free Kuwait. The American-led force succeeded in routing the Iraqis to end the Gulf War. The combat operation was called Desert Storm. The two separate stories from Desert Storm come together after the end of the war.
LCol. Nat Serling (Denzel Washington) had commanded an armored group during the war. Enemy tanks infiltrated the American line and began shooting at American tanks. In the frenzy that followed Serling's tank was hit with some small fire, and his group was reporting strikes on the radio. He ordered his gunner to find an enemy target and, when he said he had one, Serling ordered him to shoot. They hit and killed a friendly tank that had veered out of the ranks to try to flank the enemy. The tank commander was a friend of Serling. During this nighttime action, the gunners had difficulty identifying the enemy tanks. So, Serling ordered all the American tanks to turn on their lights, and then to open fire on any tanks that did not have lights. They quickly spotted and killed a number of Iraqi tanks. Serling was shaken by their mistake, and it haunted him. The incident was covered up and his friend was listed as a casualty of enemy fire. But that didn't square it with Serling.
Now in a job at the Pentagon, Serling is given a case to investigate. It's the recommendation of a posthumous Medal of Honor. Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) would be the first woman to receive the award. Serling is to investigate all aspects of her mission and make his recommendation. Walden was the pilot of a rescue helicopter that was hit by enemy fire and crashed. Serling interviews the men of the downed Black Hawk that she went to rescue, and then he tracks down the survivors of her crew. Their stories conflict with those of the Black Hawk crew enough that he probes deeper.
In the course of the film, Serling has flashbacks of his own incident. As he interviews Walden's crew, he gets different detailed stories about her, in flashbacks as told by the different crew members. Serling is under pressure to speed up his investigation so that there can be a major White House event. But his investigation and persistent probing ferrets out the truth about Walden, her actions, and those of her crew. As Serling wraps up the Walden investigation for recognition of a heroic woman, he comes to grips with his own demons. He meets the parents of his friend to tell them that he had fired on their son and killed him. Their reactions are charitable and Serling is able to find peace and return to his wife and children healed of his emotional wounds.