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Days of De Palma (Part 9): Casualties of War (1989)

Following up on the successful and great The Untouchables, Brian De Palma moved on to another large-scale project: the Vietnam War story Casualties of War.

The film is based on the true events of the “incident on Hill 192” that occurred in 1966, and that were described in a New Yorker article written by Daniel Lang in 1969.  Michael J. Fox stars as Max Eriksson, a young kid serving in Vietnam.  As the film opens, Eriksson’s squad is engaged with a firefight with the Viet Cong in the jungle, and Erikkson falls into a Viet Cong tunnel.  The seasoned sergant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) helps rescue him.  Soon after, Meserve’s close friend “Brownie” Brown is shot and killed in a Viet Cong sniper attack.  A vengeful Meserve decides to kidnap a local Vietnamese from her village.  He and the other men in the squad drag her out of her home in the middle of the night.  Eriksson objects, but he is the only one in the squad who speaks up and so is ignored.  The men in the squad force the girl to march with them, beating and eventually raping her.  Erikkson continues to object but feels powerless to stop what he is witnessing.

The film’s central focus is on Eriksson’s moral struggle of what to do in this seemingly impossible situation.  This is a grim but compelling hook for a film, one made all the more powerful by the fact that these events did actually occur.

I enjoyed Casualties of War.  I think it’s an important story to tell, and the film’s cast of talented young actors do fine work.  However, the film falls a little short for me in that it feels somewhat fake, somewhat movie-ish.  The film lacks the mythic grandeur of Vietnam War films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and it also falls short of the you-are-there gritty realism of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.  For all of Brian De Palma’s skill as a director, visually I found that Casualties of War hasn’t aged as well as those other films.  It’s also a rare example of a film in which I felt that some of Mr. De Palma’s stylistic flourishes — which I usually quite enjoy and look out for — weakened the film rather than strengthening it.

One moment that comes to mind is the sequence in the Viet Cong caves early-on in the film.  While the men in Eriksson’s platoon unsuspectingly walk through the jungle, the camera pans down to reveal the network of Viet Cong caves running underneath the service.  Mr. De Palma constructed an elaborate raised set for this sequence, one that resembled an ant farm in that the layers of the set were all exposed on one side, so that his camera could pan seamlessly from above-ground to the caves below-ground.  It’s cool, and it resembles the type of thing that Wes Anderson likes to do in his films.  But while the sequence looks great, these sort of tricks only enhance the artificiality of what we are witnessing.  In this sort of movie I don’t want to be reminded that all of these people are performers on a set or stage.  I want to believe that I’m right there with them in the jungle.  I don’t think that ever quite happens in the film.

Though on this topic I will mention another instance of Mr. De Palma’s creative camerawork that IS effective, and that is the actual kidnapping of the Vietnamese girl Oanh.  In a sequence very much like the wonderful break-in of Malone’s apartment in The Untouchables, as Sean Penn’s Sergeant Meserve leads the squad into the sleeping Vietnamese village at night, the camera becomes his eyes.  We weave and bob throughout the village, in and out of various homes and rooms.  As in the Malone sequence, the camera is a predator on the hunt for prey.  It’s an extremely clever use of the camera, and a very effective way of drawing in the audience and building the tension.

Casualties of War was one of Michael J. Fox’s early dramatic film roles, and he acquits himself well.  He’s an endearing everyman character, which is very important for the story.  It’s important that Eriksson be a character with whom the audience can identify, someone whose shoes they can imagine being in.  This needs to happen in order for the film to work, because the movie is all about forcing the audience to wonder what he or she would do if we were in Eriksson’s place.

Even better is Sean Penn as the tough, hardened, dangerous Meserve.  We see early on why he’s a great soldier — a far better soldier than Eriksson — and we also see why those same qualities twist him into a man willing to do unconscionable things.  Mr. Penn brings a fierce intensity to the performance.  This dude is scary!!  We can see why the other members of the squad follow him rather than Eriksson.  Mr. Penn chews up ever scene he is in with a thrilling dynamism.

(I mentioned Oliver Stone’s Platoon before, and writing about Eriksson and Meserve I am again reminded how Casualties of War seems, unfortunately, like something of a pale shadow of Platoon.  That film, released in 1986 — a few years before Casualties of War — gave us very similar versions of these characters in the innocent, inexperienced Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen, and the more experienced, hardened, violent and dangerous Willem Dafoe as Sergeant Elias.  I think I would think more highly of Casualties of War had I never seen Platoon.)

There are some other great actors who pop up in smaller roles.  Both John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo appear in their first screen roles, and both are solid.  The actress who portrays the unfortunate Vietnames girl Oanh, Thuy Thu, is very strong.  She has to portray some truly brutal and unpleasant moments, and she is 100% convincing throughout.  It is a very impressive performance.  And I loved seeing Dale Dye (so familiar to me as a fan of Band of Brothers) pop up as Eriksson & Meserve’s superior, Captain Hill.  It was also fun to see a young Ving Rhames show up as another superior officer, Lieutenant Reilly.

I praised Ennio Morricone’s great score in my review of The Untouchables, but I did not care for his work here.  The score felt to big and overwrought, and I didn’t care for the “ethnic” woodwind sound that the main theme had.  For me it missed the mark.

Over-all I am somewhat mixed on Casualties of War.  I enjoyed the film and think it’s important story to be told.  There is a lot about the film that works very well.  But it doesn’t quite come together in the way that I had hoped.  It feels a little too fake, a little too Hollywood.  It doesn’t hold up as well as some of the other classic Vietnam War films that I mentioned above.

Next up, I am excited to watch for the first time one of the most famous bombs of all times: Mr. De Palma’s adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 — Body Double (1984); Part 7 — Wise Guys (1986) Part 8 — The Untouchables (1987).

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