Picks and Pans Review: Courage Under Fire

updated 07/15/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/15/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips, Matt Damon

At last, a decent summer movie with big-name stars but no flying cows, exploding chewing gum or invading aliens. Not that smashing special effects aren't cool. It's just that Courage Under Fire, while reconnoitering some previous military movie terrain, demonstrates the potency of a film that's well acted and directed and tells a solid story.

To wit: An Army officer (Washington) relentlessly searches out the truth about what happened the night a medical-evacuation pilot (Ryan) and her crew got trapped behind enemy lines during the Gulf War. The pilot, who died in action, has been nominated for a posthumous Medal of Honor, but as Washington interviews the men who served under her, he finds worrisome discrepancies in their accounts of the episode. (The movie, tipping its helmet to Rashomon, shows each survivor's differing version in flashback.) What gives the story its greater resonance is the fact that Washington is a man questioning his own honor, having mistakenly given an order to fire on his own men during the Gulf War.

Washington is excellent, nicely underplaying his big scenes and ably conveying a righteous man currently ill at ease with himself. Ryan, seen only in the flashbacks, is convincingly gritty and shows nary a trace of her usual cuteisms. In supporting roles as members of Ryan's crew, Phillips and, especially, Damon are standouts. One caveat: Although Courage is unfailingly intelligent, it's never quite as moving as you suspect that director Ed Zwick {Glory) thinks it is. The script is too schematic, its pieces fitting together like Lincoln Logs. Still, while most of this summer's blockbusters appeal to the kid in us, this one rewards the adult. (R)

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