KAREN WALDEN (MEG RYAN) IS THE first woman candidate for the Medal of Honor, to be given for the Courage Under Fire that cost her life as a medevac pilot during the gulf war. The job of investigating her candidacy falls to Lt. Col. Nat Serling (Denzel Washington), who is under a cloud for his own actionsin the Persian Gulf. Serling, in the chaos of a night attack, gave the order that resulted in the ""friendly fire'' death of several of his own men. Full of remorse for his mistake and the lies the military has told the families of the dead, he's been handpicked to rubber-stamp Walden's medal. The brass and the White House love its PR potential, and with the compromised Serling expediting the inquiry, they're counting on a speedy coronation.
But as Serling begins to interview the survivors of Walden's mission, the stories of her heroic death don't match up. One witness, the jittery medic Alario (an excellent Matt Damon), paints her in glowing colors. Another, the macho Monfriez (a strong Lou Diamond Phillips), says she was a coward. For the troubled Serling, drowning his guilt in booze and shunning his wife (Regina Taylor) and kids, finding the truth becomes an obsession that's tied to his own redemption. Unable to tolerate the cover-up of his own error, he puts his career on the line to prevent another cover-up.
Director Edward Zwick (""Glory'') and writer (and Vietnam vet) Patrick Sheane Duncan use a ""Rashomon'' structure to unfold their intricate story, revealing Walden's battle in the desert through the contradictory eyes of the participants. But ""Rashomon's'' theme was the ambiguity of truth: here the technique turns out to be a suspense device, for the facts, finally revealed, are absolute. The movie is really about coming to terms with the truth, both for individuals and institutions.
What's interesting about Duncan's take is that it's neither a knee-jerk put-down of the military nor simply a patriotic salute. He has his bones to pick with the army's duplicitous protection of its own image, but it's the critique of an insider who believes in military values. What the movie doesn't engage is the politics of the edited-for-television gulf war itself; it's just the backdrop for a story that could be told of any war.
Washington, subtle, moving and charismatic, anchors the movie. If Ryan seems less well cast as the ""butch'' Walden, it's nice to see her trying to stretch. Zwick's movie is solid, honorable and well crafted, but when all the veils have dropped and the mysteries solved, it feels tidier and more melodramatic than it promised. I'd like ""Courage Under Fire'' more if it weren't quite so sure of its own importance: finally, it seems to want us to pin a medal to its chest.