Thursday, February 24, 2011


The Last Troops to Withdraw

By J.D.
Casualties of War (1989) came out toward the end of the trend of Vietnam War movies in the 1980s after the likes of Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick and others had tried their hand at it. By the time Brian De Palma’s film came out the public had grown tired of this sub-genre and, despite glowing reviews from critics, Casualties did not perform as well as hoped at the box office.

Based on an actual incident that was reported by David Lang in The New Yorker in 1969 and which he later turned into a book, Casualties of War focuses on a group of American soldiers who rape and kill a young Vietnamese woman and how one tries to do something about it. Private Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) has only been in country for three weeks and is the quintessential inexperienced recruit. He looks up to (as do most of the men) Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn), a battle-hardened veteran whose tour of duty is almost up.

It quickly becomes apparent that Meserve fits in perfectly with the madness of the war and that he enjoys killing because it makes him feel powerful — he gets off on it. If there were any last bits of humanity left in him, they are gone when a sniper kills his fellow long-timer comrade. We actually see the humanity dissipate in Meserve’s sad expression as he watches his friend taken away in a medical helicopter. It’s a beautifully acted moment by Sean Penn.

The man’s death puts Meserve and his men in a mean, vengeful mood. They are subsequently ordered to go on a long-range recon patrol and this provides them with an outlet for their aggression. Meserve makes it clear that they are going on an unplanned detour to a village and find a girl that they can have their way with. In private, Eriksson voices his concerns but goes along with it. Even though he doesn’t actually participate in the act, he is complicit because he doesn’t actually try to stop it.

Michael J. Fox was primarily known as a sitcom actor and for a string of lightweight comedies (Teen Wolf, The Secret of My Success, et al) but the underrated (if not flawed) Bright Lights, Big City (1988) hinted at a capacity for drama that he showcased to greater effect in Casualties of War. Fox does a nice job of conveying the moral dilemma that his character faces. He is the film’s moral center and the one we are meant to identify with. His scenes with Penn have the requisite intensity with Fox wisely underplaying to Sean Penn’s over-the-top sergeant.

Penn plays the obvious villain of the film and is a real monster. You can see it often in the psychotic gleam in his eyes. At times, his performance veers into caricature as he lays on the New York accent a little too thick and his grotesque facial expressions are a little too garish to be believable. That being said, one has to admire his fearlessness as an actor to play such a truly unlikable character. He and Fox are surrounded by an impressive cast of then-up-and-coming character actors, such as John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, De Palma regular Don Harvey, Ving Rhames and Sam Robards. Harvey, in particular, is impressive as Penn’s amoral right-hand man and it’s a shame this fascinating actor hasn’t gotten more mainstream roles.

Penn (and the rest of the cast) are let down by David Rabe’s screenplay. He has essentially written a morality play but it resorts to broad strokes when shades of gray would have been much more effective (as in Mystic River which showcased Penn’s talents much more effectively). Rabe does a good job with the relationships between the soldiers and how the younger, more inexperienced ones are subservient to the veterans because that is their right — they’ve earned it due to their experience in combat. Casualties of War is a flawed film but a visually interesting one as is customary with De Palma’s body of work. He expertly uses the entire widescreen frame in many scenes showing off his command of composition. It’s a shame that the content of the film wasn’t up to the same quality as the style.

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I really was not a fan of this film. I wondered what it would have been like if Penn and Fox had swapped roles. However, what really got to me was that silly ending on the bus where Fox hands that woman her scarf back, as if that made everything OK. The friend I saw it with and I actually left the theater making fun of it after it was over because of that, which surely shouldn't have been the aim.
Yeah, the film certainly has its flaws and it is not De Palma's greatest moment that's for sure. But the film does have its moments, I'll grant it that.
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