Casualties of War (1989)

24 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War” is based on a real-life incident that occurred in Vietnam in 1969—a small unit of soldiers kidnapped a peasant girl, took her along on their reconnaissance patrol through the jungle, raped her, and then ultimately murdered her. One of the five soldiers on patrol was against the plan from the start and didn’t know the sergeant was serious at first when it was mentioned originally, and it was his testimony at a court martial that brought the men to military justice.

Michael J. Fox plays the outspoken private Eriksson. Prior to the event, Eriksson had only been in combat for three weeks; not nearly enough time, apparently, for him to lose his sense of human nature. His fellow infantrymen, Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn), Corporal Clark (Don Patrick Harvey) and Private Hatcher (John C. Reilly), are more hard-edged and brutal, with only one thing on their minds: wiping out as much VC as they can. One of their platoon members, who was essentially their comic relief (and probably would have prevented the forthcoming event from happening in the first place), is killed in an ambush, and shortly afterwards, Private Diaz (John Leguizamo) serves as replacement.

Meserve is a leader. He’s capable of valor and a strong soldier. But he has lost his moral standards—one even wonders if he had them to begin with, as we don’t know anything about his background. (That wasn’t a criticism—I like that the character raises questions.) When he wants to do something, anything, he is able to get his squad to follow along. That leads to the event. After he is denied access into a nearby village to visit a prostitute the night before the platoon is supposed to go on patrol, Meserve involves his men in a plan to sneak in late at night to kidnap a simple peasant girl and take her with them as their sex slave. Eriksson doesn’t realize he’s serious until the kidnapping takes place.

In the field, Eriksson questions what the squad is doing, while Clark and Hatcher are up for anything. Diaz is the only other standout, but soon enough, he follows along, mostly because he’s intimidated by Meserve. Meserve is in complete denial, not seeing how wrong his actions are; to him, he’s captured a Viet Cong as a prisoner and he and his men are going to “have a little fun with her.” And Clark, the most bloodthirsty of the group, doesn’t care about justifying his actions—“What happens in the field stays in the field,” he says. When the moment of the rape arrives, Eriksson protests, and Meserve verbally abuses him in every way possible—he’s a Viet Cong sympathizer, he’s a homosexual, and so on. But unlike Diaz, Eriksson doesn’t give in and refuses to act in the rape. The next day, he tries to help her, and he even has an opportunity to escape in order to help her. But he himself is afraid of what would happen, and before long, the inevitable occurs, as the other four men pump bullets into her.

I know I’ve given away large chunks of the film by describing the event and the story it was based on, but writing about it and actually seeing it are two different cases here. To see this movie is to feel the weight of the situation happening all around them; that situation being the dehumanization of war. Eriksson has moral values, but they aren’t important in front of Meserve’s power, which is the only thing that matters in the field. When you have morals and ethics, you have to have the power to bring them forward and have your fellow men back you up. “Casualties of War” is a film that examines the realities of this situation and that’s what makes it so effective. Late in the film, Eriksson even says the film’s message aloud: “Everybody’s acting like we can do anything and it don’t matter what we do. Maybe we gotta be extra careful because maybe it matters more than we even know.” Not only does that apply in the battlefield, but it also applies in life.

What I could’ve done without are the scenes at the beginning and the end. The opening scene shows Eriksson looking back at the central story, so those who don’t know the story now know he’s going to survive. The closing scene feels like a tacked-on feel-good ending that didn’t really work very well. (When I watch the film on DVD, I usually stop the movie at the moment I think it should end, which is when Meserve, Clark, Hatcher, and Diaz glare at Eriksson as they’re taken away to military prison.) The framing doesn’t work.

The acting is solid all-around. Michael J. Fox is credible as a man holding on to what he has left inside. Sean Penn turns in a brilliant performance as a young man (about 19, I think) who was probably a bully back home and a bully with a gun in combat. Sometimes, he overplays his demeanor in which he’s able to mock anyone who’s against his methods, but I didn’t mind, because it also shows how pathetic he can be, while also showing why someone would be intimidated by him. Though, if we’re going to be honest, I wasn’t always that intimidated by him personally. Who is intimidating throughout is the character of Clark, played excellently by Don Patrick Harvey—this guy has “psycho” written all over him, and it’s a credit to Harvey’s acting that he’s able to pull off even the most subtle methods of the role. (Something subtle in a Brian De Palma film?! Why, I never!) Character actors John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo are featured in their first feature roles, and they both do equally good jobs.

It was a good decision on director Brian De Palma’s part to move from the hugeness of his previous film, “The Untouchables,” to a smaller story about the human condition in a war film. Some of his filmmaking trademarks are at work here—two things in focus even as one is far away from the other; long wide shots of conversation (sometimes at weird angles); and especially, a chilling point-of-view scene that usually makes it in each of De Palma’s works. But unlike most of his films, they don’t distract from the story, written with a terrific script by playwright David Rabe.

In combat, human values are usually replaced by animal instincts. That’s what “Casualties of War” is saying—just because each of us can be blown up at any time, that doesn’t mean we should be less human; if anything, we should be more human. This story, with the event at its center, is a reminder of that.

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