Gulf War veteran Serling is assigned by the Army to research a proposed posthumous Medal of Honor for Karen Walden (Ryan). But as he tries to find out what happened to her, he comes up against a web of lies and cover-ups.
Apart from a scattershot of video-hell gung ho nonsense (mostly staring Rob Lowe), this was the first movie to tackle the subject of the Gulf War. It was also the first to encompass that moral-itch of an issue which that conflict brought to the public eye: the phenomenon of "friendly fire" (i.e. being killed by your own side). Yet instead of the expected dose of post-traumatic Vietnam-type war-is-hell psycho-babbling, this is a compelling drama and mystery story in one, and still intelligent enough to carry its share of wartime demons and semi-meaningful issue-making.
There are two strands at work. First, the framework plot of Colonel Nat Serling (Washington) whose tank is seen mistakenly blowing up one of America's own in the mayhem of Operation: Desert Storm at the film's start. Secondly, in the post-Gulf future, this troubled (see: sneaky alcohol binges, fractious marriage etc.) officer is put in charge of researching a posthumous Medal Of Honour, that of Karen Walden (Ryan), the first ever woman to be awarded the medal - surrounding the whole event in a media frenzy. However, as he delves into the circumstance of her courageous demise - the rescue of under fire troops by a lone soon-to-be-downed chopper crew - he is bedevilled by lies, cover-up and downright nastiness. In classic movie tradition, only in unearthing the shattering truth can Colonel Serling exorcise his own ghosts.
Seen entirely in a set of flashbacks replaying the same event from different perspectives as various grunts (Phillips, Matt Damon, Seth Gilliam) give their slant, Ryan - an odd but actually quite satisfying choice - acts up a storm of swear-laced military lingo and tough-girl posturing. As with the intense Flesh And Bone or In The Cut, Ryan is far more accomplished when she ditches the dippy romance.
The recreation of the Gulf's desert combat is solidly realistic without venturing into the sledgehammer photorealism of, say, Oliver Stone - the action, for once, the slave of the story. After the ridiculous Legends Of The Fall, Zwick has rediscovered the touch that made Glory so measured. And the very nature of friendly fire punctures any possibility of unpalatable star-spangled jingoism. This is - gasp! - a Hollywood movie actually daring to bare its teeth at silly American flag-waving.
The kernel (no pun intended), however, is Washington's riveting performance. As the going gets tougher, the red tape denser, you can see him palpably shed his clouded mien into a hidden nobility. While the uniform defines Walden, Serling uses it for cover.
Apart from some scattered pottiness (drunken stupors, manic suicides) the film's only big failing is in the big twist. After so many red-herring takes on the "incident", the real one somehow doesn't ring true, leaving you pondering what all the fuss had been about anyway. The journey, though, is worth every penny, packing gravitas, food-for-thought and prickles of familiarity (this is one war we all remember) into every turn. Brain, as well as brawn, can still be part of the big movie ethos.
It's a well-mounted spin on the Rashomon principle, and while the denouement is limp, the build up is exemplary.