Monday, May 19, 2008

"It's Over, I Think": Casualties of War (1989)

Made in 1989 on the heels of the flashier, bigger-budget efforts by Coppola, Stone, and Kubrick, Brian De Palma’s Vietnam drama Casualties of War has fallen into abject obscurity over the years. This is unfortunate, because while the films by those other directors are all significant achievements in their own right, Casualties may well be the movie that delivers the most affecting take on the moral, ethical, and spiritual sacrifices of that particular war. A humanist vision of the Vietnam conflict, it falls somewhere between Apocalypse Now’s nightmarish surrealism and Full Metal Jacket’s cynical detatchment, yet manages to be more personal and self-contained than Platoon (which for me seems to hold up less and less with each viewing). Whereas the Big Three were all more sweeping, operatic takes on the horror of combat-- I almost hesitate to call Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket "Vietnam movies" at all, since they focus so much on war and violence in the abstract-- Casualties is insular, focusing on one man’s experience of a single incident. This is itself an anomaly in all war movies, most of which span large periods of time in an attempt to capture the spirit of a conflict as a whole. The genius of Casualties of War, as in a film like Paths of Glory, is that it manages to use a seemingly minor event as an illustration of the insanity of the War at large-- and in doing so makes a rather chilling statement about what is truly won and lost on the battlefield.

The film, which is based on a true story, stars Michael J. Fox-- whose career before and after its release have no doubt led to its not being taken seriously by some-- as Chris Eriksson, a family man who is less than a month in-country at the story’s beginning. He has been assigned to a squad led by Tony Meserve (Sean Penn), a New York native whose brash courage and seeming invincibility on the battlefield-- he saves Eriksson’s life in the film’s harrowing opening sequence-- have seen him promoted to Sergeant despite being scarcely over the age of twenty. After Meserve’s good friend Brown is killed by a Viet Cong sniper attack only days before the completion of his tour, the Sergeant becomes bitter, and his disgust with the locals he feels are conspiring against him turns to outright malice. When the squad returns to the field, Meserve surprises his men, especially the green Eriksson, by kidnapping a local girl to bring along as “portable R & R.” While the other soldiers’ reactions range from detached bemusement to outright bloodlust, new father Eriksson balks at what he realizes is nothing less than premeditated rape and murder. When Meserve actually follows through with his vile promise, Eriksson is forced into a crisis of conscience, torn between remaining loyal to his brothers in arms or bringing to light the blatant immorality of their actions.

De Palma, whom I’ve admittedly never been much a fan of, directs the film with a kind of measured energy that adds volumes to the intensity and emotional impact of the conflict. He’s always had an eye for composing interesting shots, but too often in his films they feel hollow and devoid of meaning-- stylistic flourishes present for their own sake. But here he seems to have finally found the right environment in which to unleash his gliding steadicam, point-of-view shots, and dutch angles-- all of which he uses to create an engaging opening combat sequence that does about as good a job of recreating the feeling of actually being in a firefight as any film I can think of. Similarly, when the terrifying scenes of the girl’s assault finally occur, he does a fantastic job of putting the audience in Eriksson’s shoes as he witnesses the crime. The way he handles space in the scene is impeccable. The audience feels separated and sickeningly involved in the act at the same time, and the result is perhaps the most disturbing scene that De Palma has filmed in his career.

Though he initially seems out of place in such harsh terrain, Fox, one of the great everyman actors of his time, proves to be the perfect actor to play the noble PFC Eriksson. At the time of the film’s release (and probably today as well), it was often noted how seemingly miscast he was in the role of a soldier, when that is the very point. Fox isn’t John Wayne, and neither was the average American soldier. He is only a normal man pushed into extreme circumstances, placed in situations where he has no control. He is the audience’s moral compass, and his personality--both that of his Eriksson and of Fox the individual-- seems the perfect vessel through which to mirror and filter the audience’s own disgust and impotence at having to be privy to such acts of horror with no way of stopping them.

Eriksson is a moral man who has suddenly found himself in a situation where the rules that he has been taught to live by no longer apply. “Just because each of us might at any second be blown away, we act like we can do anything,” he tells a friend who scoffs at the death of a new recruit. “But maybe just because of that we gotta be extra careful...maybe it matters more than we even know.” The chance-driven carnage dealt out by the war has created a kind of existential environment, where men like Meserve feel like they have the run of the place and can do as they please without fear of reproach. As the Sergeant says when threatening Eriksson for not participating in the rape: “Anybody can blow anybody away here at any second. Which is the way it ought to be. Always.” In the end, Eriksson’s choice comes down not just to a matter of conscience, but of whether or not he will allow himself to sacrifice his own humanity or that of the Vietnamese people that earlier in the film he so innocently stated it was his job to protect. De Palma and screenwriter David Rabe seem to assert that this sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, is the first and most lamentable casualty of any war, and that it is up to people like Eriksson to try and reclaim it.

Because of its brutality and it’s extensive moral implications, Casualties of War may very well be the most “anti-war” of all the major Vietnam movies, though that distinction has always been a shaky one, at best. In an oft-quoted argument, Francois Truffaut once said that no war film can ever be truly anti-war, because combat played out on screen is always so kinetic and exciting to watch that it seems glamorous. But of all the films that have tackled the Vietnam Era, Casualties of War seems to be the most successful in reigning in that sentiment and showing conflict in all its naked ugliness. If there is a truly “anti-war” film in the whole sub-genre, then this is it.

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