Mysterious Circumstances

Courage Under Fire

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Harriet the Spy

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           THE FIRST HOLLYWOOD movie ever made about the Gulf War, Courage Under Fire has been given the seal of approval from the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which is another way of saying that it doesn't interrogate our motives for entering the war, or acknowledge the failure of our high-tech weaponry, or address Middle East politics, or humanize the enemy in any way whatsoever. "It challenges our sensitivities," says the Society's thumbs-up letter to 20th Century Fox (included in the press kit, natch), "and [it] stimulates our minds without gratuitous violence..." True enough, the film's so-called "ragheads" appear to die in bloodless zaps--not unlike the Nintendo-style news coverage that Courage Under Fire purports to denounce. This might be a movie about the casualties of war, but to show Iraqi soldiers being torn apart by bombs and bullets would be to bring up some gratuitously messy issues.

           Here, guilt is transplanted onto the more easily resolved horror of friendly fire, as an Army lieutenant colonel (Denzel Washington, in another transcendent performance) suffers nightmares for having mistakenly blown up one of our own tanks, and investigates the bravery of a Medal of Honor candidate (Meg Ryan, with a "Suthun" accent) who was killed in the line of fire. To an extent, Courage earns points for suggesting government duplicity, for portraying facets of Gulf War Syndrome (if not by name), and for revealing that women like Ryan's Capt. Karen Walden were among those who gave their lives to this particular massacre. But the film's reductive melodrama reads such that if Washington's tortured character can give up drinking, express his feelings, and bestow a medal where it belongs, the entire nation will have properly atoned.

           Even aside from these simplistic politics, this is a movie with all the dramatic force of that other "liberal" military soaper, A Few Good Men. Nevertheless, director Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall) would aspire to Kurosawa's Rashomon. As the lieutenant interviews various Army soldiers bound by the military code of silence, Zwick presents the final hours of Ryan's helicopter pilot in ongoing flashbacks that offer variously subjective versions of the truth. At one point, the question becomes whether or not she cried on the battlefield. Well, what if she had? Certainly, the film itself isn't averse to jerking tears. In fact, it's ironic that Zwick appears to disdain the proposal of a government flack (Bronson Pinchot) to stage the Medal of Honor ceremony for maximum sentimentality ("There won't be a dry eye!"), when that's the basic MO of Courage Under Fire. Still, some ambiguity seeps in. Near the end, there's a brief image of the Ryan character's orphaned daughter wearing the symbol of her mother's heroism around her neck, but seeming unsure of whether to feel proud or pissed. By default, this one shot invokes the complexities of war more effectively than anything else in the film.

           A pluckier female heroine can be found in Harriet the Spy, a smart adaptation of Louise Fitzhugh's 1964 book about a New York City sixth grader on a mission to become a great writer. Sharp and determined, Harriet M. Welsch (Michelle Trachtenberg) forgoes afterschool games in order to gather eyewitness material for her private notebook. "I learn everything I can, and I write down everything I feel" is her motto. How cool. This is a girl movie for those who found Welcome to the Dollhouse overly mean and defeatist. It's also far more cinematic than you'd expect from a film produced by the Nickelodeon cable channel, using subtly surreal sets and elliptical editing to represent a child's selective consciousness. Bored by school, Harriet takes her magnifying glass to a neighborhood "veggie thief," an eccentric spinster (Eartha Kitt), a man who collects stray cats, and her own friends. She also copes with the sad departure of her nanny, Golly (Rosie O'Donnell), who taught her the value of solving life's mysteries.

           Spying here is a metaphor for being observant, inquisitive, fearless, and kind. But the film also investigates the selfish and obsessive nature of Harriet's "work," as well as the dangers of not sticking to one's true calling. When the spy decides to take an afternoon off, the gossip-column sections of her journal are read aloud by the class brat, who leads the school in ousting and teasing her. Although Harriet, like Dollhouse's Dawn Wiener, tries to get even by being equally cruel in return, she eventually learns to forgive, and thus manages the amazing feat of having a circle of friends and a career in journalism. Whether or not the Harriets of the world can retain their investigative spirit through adolescence remains a mystery, but it's one this inspiring movie is committed to solving.

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