During the 1991 Gulf War, Lt. Col. Nat Serling (Denzel Washington) accidentally takes out one of his own tanks in the midst of a chaotic nighttime battle, killing his friend Capt. Boylar (Tim Ransom).
The US Army covers up the incident and transfers a remorseful and alcoholic Serling to a desk job. Later, Serling has to relive his own “friendly fire” event when he is tasked with deciding whether or not Capt. Karen Emma Walden (Meg Ryan) deserves to be the first woman to receive a (posthumous) Medal of Honor for valour in combat.
Walden commanded a crew on a Medevac Huey helicopter called in to save the injured soldiers from a shot-down Black Hawk helicopter. En route to the crash, Walden came face to face with an enemy T-54 tank.
She and her fellow soldiers destroyed the enemy tank, but Walden’s helicopter was shot down. The next day, when the two downed crews were finally rescued, Walden was reported dead.
Reviewing the testimonies of Walden’s crew, Serling notices inconsistencies between them. Specialist Andrew Ilario (Matt Damon) expresses high praise for Walden, but Staff Sgt. John Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips) pronounces Walden to be a coward and states that he, Monfriez, eliminated the enemy tank.
Other members of the crew prove incapable of testifying due to their injuries. The crew of the Black Hawk mentions hearing M16 gunshots, but Ilario and Monfriez deny that shots were ever fired.
Feeling pressure from his superiors to wrap things up, Serling instead leaks the story to reporter Tony Gartner (Scott Glenn), hoping to prevent another cover-up.
Serling presses Monfriez during a car ride, and the shaken Staff Sgt forces Serling out of the car at gunpoint before killing himself by colliding with an oncoming train. Serling is able to track down Ilario, however, who finally tells the true story.
Wanting to flee and leave Rady (Tim Guinee) behind, Monfriez shot Walden in the stomach – either accidentally or deliberately – during a firefight with the enemy.
Though wounded, Walden covered her crew’s retreat with an M16 the next morning, expecting to be rescued later, but Monfriez told his rescuers that Walden was already dead.
As a result, A-10 Warthogs dropped napalm on the entire area, finishing off Walden. Ilario was too frightened to tell the truth, and Altameyer was too injured to speak.
Serling presents his final report to General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty) and Walden’s young daughter, Anne Marie (Christina Stojanovich), receives the Medal of Honor on her mother’s behalf at a White House ceremony.
Later, Serling meets with Capt. Boylar’s parents (Richard Venture and Diane Baker) and confesses the true manner of their son’s death. The Boylars tell Serling he must forgive himself.
The final scene reveals that Captain Walden was the pilot who evacuated Boylar’s body after Serling’s friendly fire incident.
Courage Under Fire was written by Vietnam veteran Patrick Sheane Duncan and directed by Edward Zwick.
Prior to shooting, the production sought cooperation from the US Department of Defense (DOD) so they could use real Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and a fleet of Apache and Black Hawk helicopters in the film.
The DOD refused any support as they believed the film portrayed the military in an unfavourable light (depictions of a small unit mutiny, the de facto murder of an officer, cover-ups, etc.)
Instead, 11 surplus British Centurion tanks were imported and sheet metal added to them so they resembled M1A1 Abrams tanks. Director Edward Zwick also had to use Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopters instead of Black Hawks.
Matt Damon put himself on a near-starvation diet and ran 13 miles a day in preparation for his portrayal of Ilario. He lost 50 pounds and suffered adrenal gland damage and other health problems that took months of medication to repair.
The film was a solid box office hit, grossing over $59 million domestically and $41.8 million in foreign markets for a worldwide gross of $100.9 million, representing a $40 million profit.
Lt. Col. Nat Serling
Capt. Karen Walden
Staff Sgt. John Monfriez
Lou Diamond Phillips
Specialist Andrew Ilario
Sean Patrick Thomas
Anne Marie Walden
Nathan Serling Jr.
Erica C. Newman
Jamal A. Mays
Ashlee Jordan Pryor
Michole Briana White