In taking on the horrors of Vietnam, Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War may be said to mark a departure for the American director of such baroque Hitchcockian exercises as Body Double and Obsession. With a script by David Rabe (best known for three plays based on his experience in Vietnam), Casualties of War is based on a book of the same name by Daniel Lang, and concerns what is now referred to as the incident on Hill 92: The 1966 kidnap, gang rape, and murder of Vietnamese woman Phan Thi Mao by a squadron of American soldiers. Despite the evident seriousness of the film’s subject matter, however, De Palma makes no attempt to restrain his natural stylistic brio; a sequence that observes a Viet Cong ambush is as kinetic and suspenseful as any in his oeuvre. And the application of such drunk-on-excess visuals to this mightily sobering material, rather than take away from its impact, serves only to intensify the material. Essentially a tale of innocence despoiled, as relayed in flashback, years after the fact, Casualties of War observes as fresh-faced recruit Eriksson (Michael J. Fox, perfectly cast for his boyish charm) becomes an unwilling witness to the horrific crimes of his fellow soldiers — among them Sean Penn’s Sergeant Tony Meserve, the film’s dour, amoral figure of American authority.
The film isn’t primarily about the legitimacy of the war; it’s about the moral death that comes in the midst of it, after the fact of the war has been put into place. In that respect, the title couldn’t be clearer.
De Palma’s moral framework here is clear; if anything, the script missteps in signposting its point-of-view so strenuously with the Death of an Innocent, multiple declamatory speeches, and a ham-handed closing trial. (An oblique anecdote delivered by Ving Rhames’s Lieutenant Reilly concerning the birth of his child navigates the film’s moral quagmire with much more elegance, not least because it broaches the issue of race.) Though some, like Jonathan Rosenbaum in his contemporaneous review, might take issue with how the film deals with the question of U.S. involvement — the script treats Eriksson’s presence in Vietnam as a helpless reality rather than a considered choice — such complaints are ultimately misguided. The film isn’t primarily about the legitimacy of the war; it’s about the moral death that comes in the midst of it, after the fact of the war has been put into place. In that respect, the title couldn’t be clearer. And though the final scene, which observes a brief encounter between Eriksson and a Vietnamese-American woman in San Francisco, might seem to offer him (and the viewer) a measure of comfort, there’s something unsettling about such a conclusion. “You had a bad dream, didn’t you?” she says to him, visibly concerned by his nervous appearance. “It’s over now, I think.” As she walks away into the distance, the score swells to a heavenly chorus, and Eriksson, for his part, looks relieved. But then, one might reflect on De Palma’s career-long preoccupation with the power of illusion and find a tincture of irony in this conclusion — for is it not more unsettling and irresolvable for being so ostensibly reassuring? After all, some things are never truly over.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.