A military thriller like this one would have been unthinkable in the 1960s; in those days, we had a whole different cast of good guys and bad guys. Welcome to the new century where fears of terrorism have made zealous advocates of law and order very cocky. This gripping film, a mix of combat footage and courtroom drama, has been adapted for the screen by Stephen Gaghan from a story by former Secretary of the Navy James Webb, a one-time Marine company commander. Here we are supposed to cheer for a gung ho military man and his lawyer who's defending him in a court-martial. The unambiguous villains are Muslim terrorists and the U.S. National Security Advisor.

In a chilling and adrenaline-pumping opening sequence set in Vietnam in 1968, Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) saves the life of his Marine buddy Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) with an extreme act of violence. Twenty-eight years later, Col. Childers presents his comrade with an honorary sword at his retirement party before heading off to his new command in the Middle East. He is called to emergency duty in Yemen where the American Embassy is under siege from a crowd of protesters and some snipers. Childers leads his men into the compound and rescues the ambassador (Ben Kingsley), his wife (Anne Archer), and their young son. When some Marines are killed, he gives the order to fire into the crowd of men, women, and children. The tragic result is the death of 83 Arabs and the wounding of many more.

Back in the States, William Sakal (Bruce Greenwood), the National Security Advisor, is worried about the international tide of sentiment against the United States in the wake of the tragedy. He decides to pin the blame on Childers. To do so, he destroys a crucial bit of evidence that shows what really happened at the Embassy.

Director William Friedkin makes the most of the courtroom drama as prosecutor Major Mark Biggs (Guy Pearce) squares off against Col. Hodges, Childers' old friend who earned a law degree after Vietnam. Although the film circles around the ethical meaning of the rules of engagement used by soldiers when dealing with hostile crowds of civilians, a more universal and obvious theme is the moral vacuity of government officials who look for an easy scapegoat rather than taking responsibility in a complex international situation. Unfortunately, the filmmakers' couldn't come up with any way of raising that point without resorting to the stereotype of the enemy as fanatical Muslims intent on a jihad against America.