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Might vs. right

For me, there is no movie moment that has ever approximated the satisfaction I felt when, on my 12th birthday, I saw Death Star blown apart for the first time. In my mind, I was witnessing something that could only be called cataclysmic--tempered by the pure-adrenaline joy of seeing the good guys decisively win. There have been better computer graphics and bigger explosions since, but never anything as elementally entertaining as this scene from Star Wars.

The experience--even today--is like a dream constantly replaying in my subconscious whenever I see a sci-fi picture, or any movie meant to elicit the same kind of primitive emotional response. It was the gestalt of the whole episode--seeing what hadn't been done in the movies before, and framed in such a way that it tapped into so many recognizable conventions: the white-hatted heroes and the black-caped villains; the beautiful princess, a needy but independent damsel trapped in the witches' castle; the Merlinlike sorcerer whose wisdom would guide the hero to victory.

Director Roland Emmerich works with the same conventions in Independence Day, only he modifies them for a post-Star Wars age. Today's audience didn't grow up on Republic serials and John Wayne Westerns so much as Irwin Allen disaster epics and "all-star cast" portmanteaus like A Bridge Too Far and The Right Stuff. Emmerich pays tribute to all of those films--plus Superman II, Alien, War of the Worlds, 2001, and many others--and the result is a smashing hodgepodge of themes and styles. It's not Star Wars. But after months of unrelenting hype, the miraculous seems to have happened: Independence Day lives up to it.

The story flows with stark simplicity. An immense alien spacecraft approaches Earth with almost no warning, sends three dozen "smaller" (about mile-wide) probes to hover over every major world city, and then unleashes its ungodly fury. The U.S. president mobilizes what's left of the military and proceeds to devise a seemingly impossible strategy for defending the planet. In this and almost all else, Independence Day passes the smirk test: It sustains at least a minimum plausibility level at all times.

That wasn't as hard as it might have been, because Emmerich may be the first action director for some time to remember that he hired actors, and he lets them ply their craft. The characterizations may not be deep, but they are vivid. Jeff Goldblum shows suitable conviction as the scientist who figures out the aliens' plan. As his father, Judd Hirsch kvetches incessantly for the most believable comic relief in the film, the kind grounded in hidden fear. Bill Pullman convincingly plays the president by exploring the nature of what makes a good leader--the ability to know whom to put confidence in, when to do it, and how to make them rise to the occasion. So what if Harry Connick Jr.'s character has "victim" written all over him from minute one? That's just another one of the conventions that make his death seem almost poignant.

The skill with which Emmerich sets out and then achieves his objectives is all the more astonishing because of his own hit-or-miss resume. Universal Soldier was just another Van Damme movie, and in Stargate, Emmerich undercut the enjoyable mysticism by pathologically cutting to an action sequence every time the movie wasn't dumbed down enough for mass consumption.

He and co-writer Dean Devlin don't follow such an easy route this time out. The logistics of the plotting--putting each character where he needs to be without making it contrived--are worked out better this time, and including the viscous goo oozing out of the aliens, exceptional action scenes, and the Planet of the Apes-style view of American monuments overshadowed by spacecraft, they stick to the essential building block of good sci-fi storytelling: jingoism. We may be outnumbered, underarmored, and caught off guard, but we're Americans, dammit, and we will win! In the final analysis, Independence Day's most enduring claim may be that it's the first politically correct war movie.

If Independence Day traffics in flag-waving arrogance, Courage Under Fire aims for reverence--for the nature of honor. Sadly, it achieves just that--a bombastic haughtiness, so smug in its belief in its own moral rectitude as to be a smothering bore.

Unfortunately, this is precisely what we have grown to expect from the film's director, Edward Zwick. Zwick seems eminently capable, which makes it doubly annoying that his pomposity always wins out over restraint and subtlety. Zwick first gained attention with Special Bulletin, an inventive TV movie, about a nuclear threat, that alternated between emotional authenticity and outrageous melodrama. It soon became clear Zwick was fundamentally unable to distinguish between those two extremes. His series thirtysomething was a frustrating mix of the good (the business politics) and the bad (parents debilitated over unsuccessful potty-training). Then, with Glory, he hit some kind of balance and seemed to have shaken off his excesses. The film was full of exciting battle sequences and truthful discussions about race and honor.

The respite from hokum was short-lived, however. In Legends of the Fall, a subtle moment couldn't be found as the film plodded methodically toward its creation of myth--involving the golden-haired hero, played by Brad Pitt. The movie was much too calculated in its aura of sweeping, tragic romanticism, even if it was, at times, disastrously fun.

In Courage Under Fire, a myth has already grown around the exploits of Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), the first woman nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor for combat. She showed exemplary courage during a siege of her position in the Persian Gulf, and a shamed colonel, Nat Serling (Denzel Washington), is assigned to investigate her and see if the medal is warranted. As can be expected from characters as self-centered as he is, Serling's investigation soon becomes less about Walden and what she did and more about the devils that haunt him. Was she truly a hero, or are the other soldiers covering up for her cowardice?

Courage Under Fire employs the well-worn device of re-enacting the same story from each witness' perspective; it's Rashomon politicized and trivialized. Serling's inquiry is a self-indulgent donnybrook as he--consumed with his own guilt for accidentally calling down fire on American soldiers--steps on every military toe up the ladder.

Courage Under Fire never answers the central question the audience asks: Is Serling right in what he's doing? The screenplay, by Patrick Sheane Duncan, wants it to seem obvious that he's in the right. After all, you can tell just by looking who the bad pols are (they talk on cell phones and meet on the golf course), and who the good ones are (they wear Redskin caps and meet in the shadow of the Capitol). Beyond that, motivations get a bit muddied.

Washington meanders through the movie, carrying Serling's drunkenness like something for show-and-tell--a child begging for pity with a skinned knee. Yet it's almost worth all the preaching to see Meg Ryan in action. Ryan isn't an especially gifted actress, and her part is surprisingly small, but she stakes a claim to being able to play something more than the perky ingenue. If only Zwick were as interested in remaking himself, he might have made something watchable out of this snooty extended sermon masquerading as high drama.

Courage Under Fire.
20th Century Fox.
Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Scott Glenn. Written by Patrick Sheane Duncan. Directed by Edward Zwick. Opens July 12.

Independence Day.
20th Century Fox.
Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith. Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Now playing.


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