‘I’m Out of the Loop’: Looking Back on 1996’s Courage Under Fire (Spoilers Ahead)

Lieutenant Colonel Nat Serling needs to reconstruct the circumstances of a downed medical evacuation mission. He needs both his commanding general and the downed helicopter’s crew to help him.

His general has cut him loose; the crew evade his investigative reach.

Lieutenant Colonel Serling is out of the loop.

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Denzel Washington as Lieutenant Colonel Nat Serling in a scene from his 1996 feature film, Courage Under Fire (IMDb.com Photo and Caption)

Among the ideas director Edward Zwick makes in his 1996 feature film, Courage Under Fire, is how important the loop (both personal and professional) is in order to get things done (à la Denzel Washington’s Colonel Serling having to prepare his report without the help of Moriarty’s General Hershberg and Lou Diamond Phillips’ Monfriez and his ‘when you go after stories, you want ’em to be right, yes? So do I’ conversation with Scott Glenn’s Gartner.).

Also, that seeking the truth is never a convenient option (akin to Gartner approaching Colonel Serling many times before getting his cooperation and Colonel Serling’s struggle to have his friendly fire incident acknowledged publicly and his ‘in order to honour a soldier like Karen Walden’ we need ‘the whole, hard, cold truth’ conversation with General Hershberg).

That and military service isn’t a career or job, it’s often a lifetime of aspiration and duty (as suggested during his conversation with Matt Damon’s Specialist Ilario, ‘either being in it [the military]. Or wanting to be in it. That’s all I know’.)

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(from left to right) Seth Gilliam and Meg Ryan on the set of 1996’s Courage Under Fire (FilmBobbery.com Photo and Caption)

The above being said, and the title notwithstanding, the film argues that in the absence of a loop, Colonel Serling can link up with similar truth-seekers, à la Gartner, to discover what’s going on.

Colonel Serling’s inconvenient search for the truth – motivated by his friendly-fire guilt, Meg Ryan’s Captain Walden’s case and director Edward Zwick’s focus on humanism – is still motivated by several factors, as opposed to just personal or professional considerations. So, the case may be made, that people aren’t good until motivated by a number of factors to be so.

That being said, and as seen through the likes of Colonel Serling and Gartner’s ‘ranger’s honour’ talk with General Hershberg, military service does stay with people. This is true even across professions as Gartner speaks of his military service in Vietnam despite being a Washington Post reporter.

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(from left to right) Stars Meg Ryan and Matt Damon on the set of 1996’s Courage Under Fire (Film.ru Photo)

Very simplistically, director Edward Zwick’s 1996 feature film, Courage Under Fire, is a spartan-looking, war enquiry film that wants to believe, and convince, that people will go looking for the truth; even if they are kicked out of their professional loop.

Newcomers to director Zwick’s filmography will find Courage Under Fire far closer to other 1990s’ films like 1995’s Crimson Tide in aesthetic but with his trademark humanism in full force.

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Director Edward Zwick on the set of 1996’s Courage Under Fire (IMDb.com Photo and Caption)

Director Edward Zwick’s Trademarks in 1996’s Courage Under Fire:

(Whilst the opinions and observations above are, unless stated otherwise, the author’s own, the following sources were used for information: IMDb.com)

The Reverse-Screenwriters’ Club (Spoilers Ensue):

Plot: a guilt-ridden US Army colonel pieces together the events of a downed rescue mission in the Gulf War.

Prologue: a montage of archival footage introduces the circumstances of the Gulf War.

Act 1: Colonel Serling decides to order his men to man their tanks; Colonel Serling decides to order their advance.

Act 2: Colonel Serling decides to receive surrendering Iraqi troops; Colonel Serling decides to order the ‘enemy’ tank be destroyed.

Act 3: Colonel Serling decides to confess his responsibility in Boylar’s tank’s destruction to the enquiry officer; Colonel Serling decides to meet the rescued soldiers.

Act 4: Colonel Serling decides to take their accounts of their rescue; Colonel Serling decides to speak to Bruno

Act 5: Serling decides not to speak to Gartner; Serling decides to head to Fort Hood.

Act 6: Serling decides to interview Colonel Rady; Serling decides not to speak to Gartner in the bar.

Act 7: Serling decides to interview Specialist Ilario; Serling decides to interview Captain Walden’s parents.

Act 8: Serling decides to return home; Serling decides to confront General Hershberg over the inconsistencies in the eyewitness accounts.

Act 9: Serling decides to interview Monfriez; Serling decides to confront him over the inconsistencies in the eyewitness accounts.

Act 10: Serling decides to speak to Gartner; Serling decides to follow-up with Specialist Ilario, unsuccessfully.

Act 11: Serling decides to confront General Hershberg over the eyewitness account inconsistencies; Serling decides to defy Hershberg and produce the report regardless.

Act 12: Serling decides to speak to Gartner; Serling decides to ask Gartner to track down Altameyer.

Act 13: Serling decides to meet Altameyer; Serling decides to interview him, unsuccessfully.

Act 14: Serling decides to meet Manfriez; Serling decides to go on a drive with Manfriez.

Act 15: Serling decides to persuade Manfriez not to kill himself, unsuccessfully; Serling decides to leave the car.

Act 16: Serling decides to track down Specialist Ilario; Serling decides to press him for more answers.

Act 17: Serling decides to accept Captain Walden’s letter from Ilario; Serling decides to meet Hershberg and Gartner.

Act 18: Serling decides to answer Gartner’s questions; Serling decides to give Gartner his finished report.

Act 19: Serling decides to visit the Boylar family; Serling decides to confess his complicity in their son’s death.

Act 20: Serling decides to visit Captain Walden’s grave; Serling decides to return home.

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