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At the Movies

Summer redeemed by a couple of good movies


For some years now, John Sayles has been making good, small (read intelligent, politically aware, moderate budget) movies on everything from unionizing coal miners ("Matewan") to last year's delicate "The Secret of Roan Inish," and it was always a question whether they'd make it out to the neighborhood mall.

Now, Castle Rock has released Sayles' "Lone Star," a brooding, many-layered examination of a decades-old killing in a Texas town, which won't outgross the boring summer spectaculars but has the scope and passion to reach a mass audience. It's an exciting melodrama that also manages to suggest a great deal about the burden of history. Its variety of musical styles reflects the ethnic variety of its story.

Frontera is on the Rio Grande. Sayles makes a scene in a high school history class conducted by Pilar (Elizabeth Pena) integral to both past and present. Inevitably, the students learn of a long history of violence against Hispanics and blacks, which is intimately connected to the movie's central question: Who killed Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson), the sadistic, racist sheriff who disappeared in 1957 along with a lot of town money?

The investigation is conducted by the present sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), who grew up in the shadow of his widely admired late father, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), Wade's former deputy. Sam is all too aware that he was elected sheriff -- after being away from the town for some years -- on the strength of his father's reputation for fair-mindedness, but the viewer is brought to wonder what his real feelings are as he vigorously investigates the nearly 40-year-old crime in which Buddy is a prime suspect.

As always with Sayles, the movie tries to show how a whole community operates. Many in the town, for example, resent Pilar's new history curriculum and want to nourish heroic Texas myths that ignore past slaveholding. Many resist the inclusion of Latinos in a proposed memorial honoring veterans of the Korean War. There is almost too much plot, and its various threads are not pulled together until the end.

Sam and Pilar, we gradually learn, were fond of each other in high school, but both Buddy Deeds and Pilar's mother, Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon), a Mexican immigrant who has gained bourgeois success, combined to break up the relationship. Although this memory feeds Sam's continuing resentment of his father, Sayles deliberately underplays his first meeting with Pilar since high school. Much later in the movie, when she asks him why he returned to Frontera, he surrenders his stoicism and says, "I came back because of you."

The troubled pattern of father-son relations is enlarged by the presence of Delmore Payne, a by-the-rules black colonel in charge of the local Army camp, who refuses to visit his father, Otis (Ron Canada), who walked out on the family when Delmore was a boy. Otis now runs the local bar that caters to black soldiers.

Delmore's rigidity has left him alienated from his own son, Chet (Eddie Robinson), whom we first meet as an indifferent student in Pilar's history class. Later, Chet visits his grandfather without Delmore's knowledge, and Otis shows him his own private museum of black history.

Sayles is frequently accused of excessive moral earnestness. It's true he insists on the significance of race and privilege in every aspect of the town's life, but "Lone Star" shows he has learned to make his didactic impulses serve overall dramatic purposes. At every turn, we are reminded of the weight of the past.

Although there are so many characters that few have much playing time, a surprising number are memorable.

The end of "Lone Star" comes with a shock. We see how the past crime is tied up with almost everything that came before, but we may find it hard to surrender our illusions or our preference for more conventional movie solutions. As one character announces shortly before, "People liked the story we told better than what the truth might have been."

The same line might have been appropriately repeated during the central action of "Courage Under Fire," a big-budget production from 20th Century Fox that deserves its box-office success. A Gulf War movie that simply assumes the rightness of American military action, its central struggle goes on within the conscience of Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington), who gives an order during the heat of battle at Al Bathra that results in the destruction of an American tank, killing men from his own company. The Pentagon wants to bury the incident. Serling is given a desk job, investigating the qualifications of those nominated for medals.

Denzel Washington gives a subtle performance that will surely win him an Academy Award nomination. Without screaming or pyrotechnics, he shows us a man obsessed with the lie he is forced to live, who begins to drink and even stays away from his supportive wife (Regina Taylor) and children. When he starts to write a letter of condolence to the family of a man in his company who was killed, he is unable to finish it.

It is in this charged context that Gen. Herschberg (Michael Moriarty) tells Serling to do a rush report on Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), a medevac helicopter pilot who is a candidate for the Medal of Honor. The general, who has been Serling's friend and mentor, explains that both the White House and the Pentagon have a special interest in the case. They want, he says wryly, "one little shining piece of something for people to believe in." The presumption is that Walden died on the ground while trying to rescue some soldiers, but Serling's own sense of guilt and understandable suspicion of "official versions" of truth guarantee that he will carry out a thorough investigation.

Cynics can easily say that everyone knows Hollywood isn't going to use the first major movie about a woman officer to present Meg Ryan as a coward. Audiences will find it suspenseful anyway, primarily because it's Serling's story. We follow the gathering of contradictory evidence on the case through his eyes. Director Edward Zweck and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan have obviously learned from Kurosawa's "Rashomon."

"Courage Under Fire" is no "Rashomon" -- it tries too obviously for calculated emotions -- but it shows how difficult it is to sort out the truth, especially under combat conditions. The device of having a Washington Post reporter (Scott Glenn) conducting his own investigation of a Pentagon cover-up seems somewhat contrived, but puts additional pressure on Serling, and the reporter is useful in motivating later stages of the exposition.

Denzel Washington shows why he is one of the best actors around today. Meg Ryan is also fine in the flashbacks that present alternative versions of the long night in which Americans fend off an Iraqi attack. The wife of a soldier who survived the battle refers to her as "butch," but the men who served with her recognize her ability and commitment. In successive flashbacks we observe the cockiness of a superbly disciplined woman in command, a moment of tears, yet readiness to shoot even at her own men rather than let them break and run.

But Serling is relentless. All the witnesses seem to be leaving something out. What he (and the movie) is about is beyond considerations of gender or race: the true meaning of bravery, and the necessity of facing up to damaging facts.

Zwick and cinematographer Roger Deakins stage an impressive tank battle in near darkness and easily convince us of the chaos of warfare. Their ability to correct the impression that the Gulf War was only a matter of computerized military hardware is less impressive, however, than what their film tells us about individual integrity.

"Courage Under Fire" is ultimately a rather traditional movie that celebrates the virtues of the military. Its strength is based on the clarity of its convictions. Fortunately, it is not simply a celebration of American supremacy, but concentrates on Serling's interior struggle and the painful processes of moral growth. In this way it transcends the very kind of exploitation the Pentagon and White House are calling on Serling to provide and achieves a rousing and emotionally satisfying success.

After praising "Courage Under Fire" as a superior movie, however, it is fair to recognize the limitations of its exclusively American assumptions. Great war stories always find a way to recognize the humanity of their "enemies." Obviously, there were no Meg Ryans among the Iraqi forces, but as Serling came to a deeper reflection on what he had been through, should it have been impossible for him to recognize that the Iraqis, too, showed courage under fire?

Joe Cunneen is coeditor of Cross Currents.

National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996