Gypped

Independence Day Directed by Roland Emmerich. Starring Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, and Will Smith. Courage Under Fire Directed by Edward Zwick. Starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan.

The humans are so dumb that you may think they deserve to die, including Star Trek: The Next Generation's Brent Spiner as a mad scientist in Area 51, who cuts open a live (if stunned) alien without posting an armed guard in the operating room. As for the stroke of genius that ends up disabling the aliens' computer system -- gee, I wouldn't want to give away the climax, but if we were playing Password I'd say, "It's not a flu, it's a ..." There are a couple of choice camp moments. I love when the stripper tells the president's wife she's a dancer. "Ballet?" asks the first lady. "Exotic," answers the babe. And the affable, humorous teaming of Smith and Goldblum sets black-Jewish relations back 40 years -- a good thing, too.

Nonetheless, did Smith's girlfriend need to be a stripper? And did Goldblum's father have to be an impossibly wise old crank who can recite UFO lore as well as the liturgy? You don't have to be black or Jewish to hate Independence Day. But it helps.

In the days of Darryl F. Zanuck (who personally produced The Longest Day), 20th Century Fox had a reputation for saluting the military. With the nearly simultaneous release of Independence Day and Courage Under Fire, the new regime exhumes that tradition. Courage Under Fire is somber and accomplished, but it gyps moviegoers as much as its gaudy sci-fi cousin. Denzel Washington stars as Lt. Col. Nat Serling, a Gulf War tank commander who kills his best buddy in a friendly fire incident, then faces down his demons as he investigates the first woman nominated for the Medal of Honor for combat heroism. Again, the movie peaks in the initial 40 minutes -- with devastating candor, it contrasts the sleek video image of the Gulf War with the blood-and-sand actuality, refusing to kowtow to PC by diluting the xenophobic language and attitudes of soldiers in battle.

At the start, Serling gives a send-off to his troops with the aplomb of Colin Powell, and for a few moments this movie's war is so phenomenally swift and sure that it could be straight out of one of Norman Schwarzkopf's press conferences. Then it turns too swift and not so sure, as Serling's tank goes under fire, and in a nocturnal tumult of sand and smoke, he fatally attacks one of his own. So long as the movie is salvaging the real agony beneath the Gulf War image, the director, Edward Zwick (co-creator of TV's thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, best-known as a filmmaker for Glory and Legends of the Fall), shows a new, muscular incisiveness. And he goes from strength to strength when Serling opens a file on the late Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), the chopper pilot who led a medevac unit in defense of Americans pinned down in a fierce pocket of Iraqi resistance. Serling and Zwick re-create her story in an intriguing Rashomon-like style, from fragmented and often contradictory testimony.

But the present-tense story -- about Serling's alcoholism, his emotional inability to live with his family, his intransigent search for the facts, and his strained relations with the troubled survivors of Walden's unit -- becomes improbably hyperbolic, reaching its nadir in a car-and-train crash. And the resolution of what happened to Walden rests on a tricky coincidence. The more melodramatic punches the movie throws, the more force it loses on the follow-through. What's frustrating is that the time-jumping form -- keenly handled by Zwick -- promises a complexity the movie can't deliver. Patrick Sheane Duncan's script exhausts what it has to say about the messiness of war and the dangers of military pride long before Serling closes Walden's case. (To be fair, judging from Duncan's published novel, his script underwent considerable reshaping; early production notes listed thirtysomething scriptwriter Susan Shilliday as a contributor.)

Matt Damon (who gave an underappreciated performance as an untested frontier soldier in Walter Hill's Geronimo: An American Legend) is touching as Walden's conscience-stricken closest friend; Lou Diamond Phillips indulges in macho preening as an obstreperous gunner. In her small, crucial role, Meg Ryan comes through as an embattled commander; she brings off at least one moving, complicated moment when she explains to the doubting men that her tears derive from tension. Still, like Duncan's last produced script, Mr. Holland's Opus, this is primarily a one-man show. And Denzel Washington gives a clutch performance, providing Serling with variety, dimension, and a simmering prickliness that makes his teardrops sting. Washington has enough dash and command at the git-go to demonstrate how much Serling's mistake costs him. When he plays depressed, he doesn't become inexpressive. As a drill instructor might say, what he does is outstanding. He changes his emotional baseline, so that his character's range of thought and feeling never loses breadth or subtlety, even when it starts (and finishes) on the negative end of the spectrum. Washington is sly and avuncular with Damon, assertive and combative with Phillips, and his own trembling conviction makes Serling's predicament heart-rending. Yet the reflections that Serling finds in his investigation of Walden form too convenient a mirror image; the script stymies this inspired actor from dredging up startling revelations.

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