While serving in the Gulf War, Lieutenant Colonel Serling (Denzel Washington) accidentally destroys one of his own tanks during a confusing night-time battle, killing his friend, Captain Boylar. The US Army covers up the details and transfers Serling to a desk job.
Later, Serling is assigned to determine if Captain Karen Emma Walden (Meg Ryan) should be the first woman to receive a (posthumous) Medal of Honor. She was the commander of a Medevac Huey that was sent to rescue the crew of a shot-down Black Hawk. When she encountered a T-54, her crew destroyed it by dropping a fuel bladder onto the tank and igniting it with a flare gun. However, her own helicopter was shot down soon after. The two crews were unable to join forces, and when the survivors were rescued the next day, Walden was reported dead.
Serling notices inconsistencies between the testimonies of Walden's crew. Specialist Andrew Ilario (Matt Damon), the medic, praises Walden strongly. However, Staff Sergeant John Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips) claims that Walden was a coward and that he led the crew in combat and improvised the fuel bladder weapon. Sergeant Altameyer, who is dying in a hospital, complains about a fire. Warrant Officer One Rady, the co-pilot, was injured early on and unconscious throughout. Furthermore, the crew of the Black Hawk claim that they heard firing from an M16, but Ilario and Monfriez deny they had one.
Under pressure from the White House and his commander, Brigadier General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty), to wrap things up quickly, Serling leaks the story to a newspaper reporter, Tony Gartner (Scott Glenn), to prevent another cover-up. When Serling grills Monfriez during a car ride, Monfriez forces him to get out of the vehicle at gunpoint, then commits suicide by driving into an oncoming train.
Serling tracks Ilario down, and Ilario finally tells him the truth. Monfriez wanted to flee, which would mean abandoning Rady. When Walden refused, he pulled a gun on her. Walden then shot an enemy who appeared behind Monfriez, but Monfriez thought Walden was firing at him and shot her in the stomach, before backing off. The next morning, the enemy attacked again as a rescue party approached. Walden covered her men's retreat, firing an M16. However, Monfriez told the rescuers that Walden was dead, so they left without her. Napalm was then dropped on the entire area. Altameyer tried to expose Monfriez's lie at the time, but was too injured to speak, and Ilario was too scared of the court-martial Walden had threatened them with and remained silent.
Serling presents his final report to Hershberg. Walden's young daughter receives the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony. Later, Serling tells the truth to the Boylars about the manner of their son's death and says he cannot ask for forgiveness. The Boylars tell Serling he must put down the burden at some point and grant him their forgiveness.
In the last moments, Serling has a flashback of when he was standing by Boylar's destroyed tank and a medevac Huey was lifting off with his friend's body. Serling suddenly realises Walden was the Huey pilot.Denzel Washington as Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling
Meg Ryan as Captain Karen Emma Walden
Lou Diamond Phillips as Staff Sergeant John Monfriez
Matt Damon as Specialist Andrew Ilario
Bronson Pinchot as Bruno, a White House aide
Seth Gilliam as Sergeant Steven Altameyer
Regina Taylor as Meredith Serling
Michael Moriarty as Brigadier General Hershberg
Željko Ivanek as Captain Ben Banacek
Scott Glenn as Tony Gartner, a Washington Post reporter
Tim Guinee as Warrant Officer One A. Rady
Tim Ransom as Captain Boylar
Sean Astin as Sergeant Patella
Ned Vaughn as First Lieutenant Chelli
Sean Patrick Thomas as Sergeant Thompson
Manny Perez as Jenkins
Ken Jenkins as Joel Walden
Kathleen Widdoes as Geraldine Walden
Christina Stojanovich as Anne Marie Walden
Tom Schanley as Questioner
David McSwain as Sergeant Egan
U.S. domestic gross: US$ 59,031,057
Worldwide gross: $100,860,818
The film opened #3 at the box office behind Independence Day and Phenomenon
The film received mostly positive reviews. As of January 14, 2013, the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 85% of critics gave the film a positive review based upon a sample of 53 reviews with an average rating of 7.3/10. The critical consensus states that the film is "an emotional and intriguing tale of a military officer who must review the merits of a fallen officer while confronting his own war demons. Effectively depicts the terrors of war as well as its heartbreaking aftermath." At the website Metacritic, which utilizes a normalized rating system, the film earned a generally favorable rating of 77/100 based on 19 mainstream critic reviews.
The movie was commended by several critics. James Berardinelli of the website ReelViews wrote that the film was, “As profound and intelligent as it is moving, and that makes this memorable motion picture one of 1996's best.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times spoke positively of the film saying that while the ending “…lays on the emotion a little heavily” the movie had been up until that point “…a fascinating emotional and logistical puzzle—almost a courtroom movie, with the desert as the courtroom.”
Denzel Washington’s acting was specifically lauded as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, “In Washington's haunted eyes, in the stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins (Fargo) that plunges into the mad flare of combat, in the plot that deftly turns a whodunit into a meditation on character and in Zwick's persistent questioning of authority, Courage Under Fire honors its subject and its audience.” Additionally Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle said that, “Denzel Washington is riveting.”
Denzel Washington was nominated for Best Actor at the 1996 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, but lost to Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade.
The Medal of Honor had been awarded to a woman, Mary Edwards Walker, an American Civil War physician, but not for valor in combat. A White House aide played by Bronson Pinchot makes the distinction.
The U.S. Department of Defense withdrew its cooperation for the film so the tanks Serling commanded early in the film were British Centurions shipped from Australia with sheet metal added to make them resemble M1A1 Abrams. These visually modified tanks were subsequently used to simulate the Abrams in several other motion pictures.
ROTC Cadets from Texas A&M University were extras in the background in some of the training camp scenes.
The film draws reference to Walden and her crew assisting the crew of a downed Black Hawk helicopter. However, the scene shows the wrecked fuselage of a Huey. This is due to the Department of Defense withdrawing its cooperation. There were no privately owned Black Hawk fuselages available to acquire for the film. The parts of the script making reference to the Black Hawk had already been shot, so rather than change the whole film to adapt it to a Huey, the producers left it as Black Hawk and used a wrecked fuselage of a Huey for the desert shots in the hope not many viewers would notice the discrepancy.
The Iraqi battle scenes were filmed at the Indian Cliffs Ranch just outside El Paso, Texas. Many of the props were left there and became a tourist attraction. The White House Rose Garden set was destroyed twice: once by a tornado, and once by a sandstorm.
In order to lose 40 pounds (18 kilograms) for the later scenes, Matt Damon went on a strict regimen of food deprivation and physical training. On Inside the Actors Studio, Damon said that the regimen consisted of six and a half miles of running in the morning and again at night, a diet of chicken breast, egg whites, and one plain baked potato per day, and a large amount of coffee and cigarettes. His health was affected to the extent that he had to have medical supervision for several months afterwards. His efforts, however, did not go unnoticed; director Francis Ford Coppola was so impressed by Damon's dedication to method acting that he offered him the leading role in The Rainmaker (1997). Steven Spielberg was also impressed by his performance, but thought he was too skinny and discounted him from casting considerations for Saving Private Ryan until he met Damon during the filming of Good Will Hunting, by which time he was back at his normal weight.