On a first viewing, I found Casualties of War to be a fitfully intriguing, if overly quotidian Vietnam film that offered up a unique story but a predictable payoff. Furthermore, the tonal upheaval that occurs in the final act turned what had been one of Brian De Palma's most solid films into a well-meaning but sappy liberal morality play. Looking at it now, however, I see one of De Palma's better films, and a slyly literal take on the illegality of war that proposes such a simple, self-evident solution that it never seems to come to mind: what if someone actually took the horror and wrongness of war to court?
Unlike a court-martial film, Casualties of War is neither about a kangaroo court to make an example of the enlisted or a demonstration of the rotten chain of command. In fact, it isn't about the trial itself but the courage to bring one's fellow soldiers to that trial, overcoming self-doubt over incriminating one's fellow servicemen and intense pressure from everyone else to let the whole thing go. Coming off the upswing of strong (and strongly critical) Vietnam films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, De Palma's film sticks firmly with the men on the ground. Less forgiving than Stone's semi-autobiographical film and less heady than Kubrick's movie, De Palma's feature shows the same breakdown of sanity and humanity not as the result of an officious, out-of-touch command but of the absence of any clear structure in an environment so confusing the trees themselves seem to be hostile.
De Palma opens in the present on a subway, but he soon moves into a flashback in medias res, wading through the jungle at night with soldiers who are already paranoid about potential tunnels under their feet. Suddenly, the VC ambushes the American squad, throwing the film instantly into pandemonium before we've even learned the names of all the characters. De Palma finds unexpected means of generating tension by layering the different horrors of field combat in Vietnam into one sequence. As mortar explosions burst and roar around the men, Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) inadvertently runs over the roof of a tunnel, which collapses and leaves the soldier dangling precariously as mortar fire draws closer to his position. Meanwhile, Vietcong move through the tunnel, and the one in front spots Eriksson's swinging legs and moves in for a silent kill. At last, Sgt. Meserve (Sean Penn) pulls him out just before the mortars reach the position and as the VC underneath lunges, wringing the last drop of suspense from the moment. Everything is in chaos, and when Meserve punctuates his killing of the Vietcong soldier in the tunnel with a tossed-off "Some mad fucking shit, isn't it?" he doesn't even scratch the surface of the lunacy.
Unlike the dreamy depiction of Vietnam's horrors of Apocalypse Now or the moralizing reflection of Platoon, Casualties of War goes for a much more straightforward approach, tempering the director's romantic tendencies. But it certainly doesn't spare his more vicious side: enraged over the death of a member of the unit and frustrated because of leave being cut short for redeployment, Meserve stops at a hamlet as the men move out and kidnaps a young Vietnamese girl, Oann (Thuy Thun Le), to use as a sex slave.
De Palma's camera is clearly repelled by the actions of the men, all of whom—the twisted Meserve, the downright evil Cpl. Clarke (Don Harvey), the feckless and weak Hatcher (John C. Reilly)—rape the woman over Eriksson's desperate protests. Even the new replacement, Pvt. Diaz (John Leguizamo), gets roped into the beatings and rapes, intimidated by the sinister pressure placed upon him and Eriksson to fall in line to ensure total complicity among the men. Fox, perfectly cast to look mousy and meek against his comrades, can only squeak out pleas for sanity in the middle of an insane land. De Palma, usually so up close and personal with his camera, pulls back into the stylish objectivity he used with The Untouchables, but to far more troubling and memorable effect.
For a director frequently (and sometimes justifiably) accused of misogyny or at least a fetishization of the male gaze, De Palma shows a key restraint in his filming of the abuse heaped upon Oanh, never letting his camera linger upon the acts even in horror lest he inadvertently oversell the shock. Casualties of War features a number of zoom-ins and foregrounded mise-en-scène but few genuine close-ups, almost never moving nearer an actor's face than a medium close-up that leaves enough of his torso in the frame to ensure some personal space. For example, when Eriksson moves to see what Meserve is doing with Oanh and spots him about to ravish her, the camera cuts back to a medium-long shot for Fox's reaction of disgust and panic, maintaining focus on him but also arranging the grisly act in the background, an objective moment that almost plays out as a brief glimpse into Eriksson's head as the image of Meserve's violation burns into the back of the private's memory. In this way, the director's removed framing has the unexpected result of being more affecting than easy, exploitative close-ups and male gazes.
De Palma's distance also serves another purpose, leaving a grim suggestion out in the open that the horror of the Americans' treatment of Oanh is unremarkable and unworthy of special attention within the larger context of the Western presence in Vietnam; by some standards, in fact, what Meserve and the other four do to the girl might be nothing more than a literalization of the war itself. Nagged at by latent guilt for his actions and driven paranoid with terror of his crimes being discovered, Meserve orders the men to kill the girl—notably, he does not do the deed himself, Penn's voice cracking with the death throes of his humanity, his war-torn sense of decency holding on just enough to keep him from pulling the trigger. But as American choppers fly in to support the squad's fight against a band of VC, the four men at last deal with the problem, riddling the woman with bullets as Eriksson cries out helplessly.
It's a ghastly end to a sordid affair, but the film has an entire act left, which it devotes to Eriksson's quest for justice with the military authorities. Here, De Palma gets to work enhancing his political statement, which brings up a fair amount of his old radical stances through a more subdued visual approach. At last we meet the officer corps, and sure enough, they want to hear none of this story. Where so many anti-war films follow a top-down hierarchy of responsibility for atrocity, starting with detached generals making foolish demands for personal glory and bloodily trickling down to the enlisted man, Casualties of War muddies the culpability. Here, the soldiers move outside of communication with brass, lose their minds in war's atmosphere and commit horrible crimes, and then the leaders take steps to cover up the actions to maintain morale, decorum and image.
De Palma is perhaps the first director who, what with his metacinematic and pop culture flourishes, filters war through an understanding of its meaning in modern media. It's not that he's saying soldiers are rapists or baby killers or what have you, but he's not lazily foisting all responsibility onto the military heads. Westmoreland didn't order the My Lai massacre, but he damn sure participated in the cover-up to prevent word of the atrocity spreading. De Palma's understanding of the post-television landscape of war's popular front gives Casualties of War a resonance beyond its demented, moral chasm of a narrative: the cover-up the military unsuccessfully mounts against Eriksson could be seen more recently in the Abu Grahib situation.
As if to prove that he does not seek to simple saddle the average soldier with the psychic weight of Vietnam's horrors, he smartly cast young actors in the roles of the squad soldiers—ironically, the oldest, Fox and Penn, both nearing 30, actually look the youngest of them all. Thinking about this now, I suddenly realize after years of trying to pin down what it is about Saving Private Ryan (a film I recently talked about in a less-than-positive review) I find so irksome: Spielberg's film asks if the current generation can ever match up to the Greatest one, but he does not even give youth a voice, instead using actors well into their 30s and looking like career Army men. Only a few characters in that film actually seem like kids plucked from their hometowns to fight Hitler. De Palma's complex look at the moral casualties of war is all the more potent and believable because he recognizes how mere kids were thrust into the insanity of this situation and expected to behave as noble warriors. When Eriksson takes his case to a captain (Dale Dye), the career man tries to gently dissuade the private from prosecuting his comrades, finally exploding when he reminds the private that Meserve is only 20-years-old and in a place he no doubt finds as bewildering and terrifying as Eriksson. It's a sobering point, and one that takes some of the steam out of Penn's wide-eyed, sputtering fury though he's not even in the scene.
But De Palma also knows that the adult thing to do is not to lump blame or let someone off the hook, and as top-heavy as the film can feel, this final act becomes more evidently vital to me with every viewing. Complete with a coda in the present-day as Eriksson tries for a fleeting connection with a Vietnamese-American girl who reminds him of Oanh, Casualties of War at last emerges the maturation of the director's radical '60s politics, a coming-to-terms not only with his his own waning fury but his generation's moral failure to contemplate and process the illegality and atrocity of Vietnam. My main issue is that the trial for the four soldiers feels too grandiose to fit into De Palma's appropriately humble sense of scope, something he only half-successfully works back into the film after the verdict is read and that same captain hisses in Eriksson's ears that none of the men would serve anything close to their full sentences. (That, by the way, was true; the actual soldiers who really did commit these acts all received shorter sentences; Hatcher even got out completely on an appeal.)
Nevertheless, Casualties of War holds up as a solid, if wisely non-showy, display of De Palma's most mainstream style. But it's that older, wiser but still irascible view of Vietnam that gives the movie its power. I used to think of the film as nothing more than an average exercise: good, but Teflon-coated against any connection, much the same way I viewed The Untouchables. But if my opinion of De Palma's gangster film has only lessened, my approval of this war film grows with each new viewing. There are flashy snatches of direction—that initial skirmish in the jungle, the grandiose horror of Oanh's murder—but De Palma's generally tame approach might give off the impression of rote repulsion. Still, the director uses his omniscient frame to pose serious, reaching ideas on the lingering issue of Vietnam on the national psyche, and I can finally say without hesitation that I would rank it among the finest movies ever made on that turbulent, ever-relevant conflict.