War Zoned
Justin Stewart on Casualties of War

The first and so far last De Palma war movie arrived at an inopportune moment—the end of the Eighties—after a glut of mostly superlative Vietnam films. Taken as a combined statement, Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July provided a rounded and damning take on the Vietnam experience, while Kubrick’s vision, Full Metal Jacket, added its own oblique, poetic accents. These collected masterworks covered so many bases that their ring of finality echoed, and Casualties of War (1989) had to battle to be heard. Although critically praised in Europe (as per the De Palma norm) and to some degree in America (especially by Pauline Kael, also per the De Palma norm), the movie was a lukewarm financial success. Time has only been kind to it, and now this most uniquely stylized of the 1980s American war movies is clearly worthy of a top-seeded spot in its category, as well as in its director’s vibrant oeuvre.

Most war films have their sights focused on a manageable cluster of people and events, but De Palma’s look at a five-man patrol’s ethically explosive “detour” into the jungle feels especially microcosmic, even as it manages to ask the kind of dark and important big questions that the sweeping spectacle branch of war films scarcely glances. The corrupting nature of war (especially one as confused as Vietnam) is a theme, sure, but also explored are the not-so-easily dismissed benefits of following clearly wrong orders, the drawbacks of individualism, the endless repercussions of routine murder, and the increased importance of adhering to one’s personal sense of what’s right, even as the mad violence of war blots the distinctions.

David Rabe based his screenplay on a New Yorker article and book by Daniel Lang about an American patrol that kidnapped a young female South Vietnamese citizen, marched her into the jungle, raped, and then killed her. In the movie, Michael J. Fox plays Eriksson, the only soldier not to participate in the rape, and the one who eventually speaks up and assures that the perpetrators face justice at a tribunal. In earlier movies like Greetings and Hi, Mom! De Palma had touched on Vietnam with a satirical touch, but the 1989 De Palma is the stylist we associate with his prime thrillers. The split focus used in Blow Out here allows us to observe Eriksson’s reactions, close-up, to both Oanh’s rape (which he knows is happening) and stabbing (which he doesn’t). The shooting of the jovial Brownie (Erik King), in the midst of a plantation idyll after the movie’s first battle, is a seizure-inducing shock on the level of Carrie’s last laugh. Here it’s no cheap charge, but a partial explanation for the remorseless, “total fuckin’ destruction” mindset adopted by loose cannons Cpl. Clark (Don Harvey) and the man who hatched the abduct-and-rape plot, Sgt. Meserve.

As Meserve, Sean Penn gives one of his most flamboyant and best performances. From the killing of his pal Brownie on, his insane disregard for decency and proper conduct rapidly compounds, though he never loses the brash charisma that explains why all but Eriksson stay in line. His Brando-from-Brooklyn accent is cartoonishly badabing-badaboom at times, but the broad strokes make their impression. Fox, positively swimming in his fatigues and helmet (so small he’s just barely believable as combat-ready), cowers in Penn’s shadow. But, naturally, his reticence gives his character power as a foil. John C. Reilly is conflicted but transparently self-deluding as Private Hatcher in a knockout supporting performance.

It would be easy to mistake Rabe and De Palma’s fixed concentration on this one appalling Vietnam excerpt as an anti-imperialist smearing of the Ugly American Abroad if its moral implications didn’t so aptly apply to all participants in wars both just and unjust. And as Kael noted, the only unusual thing about the incident (besides the soldiers not caring that their victim wasn’t even Vietcong), was that someone had the courage to force out the facts. The excitement of Casualties of War is seeing the ways in which De Palma bends his singular, thrilling craft to this unique-to-him material, and how the material gains meaning and power through his style.