For Your (Re)Consideration: Casualties of War
Welcome to For Your (Re)Consideration, our new regular series in which contributors will make the case for a film they feel is underseen or underappreciated relative to the canon. In our first entry, Carson Cook revisits 1989’s Casualties of War. Please note that there will be a higher likelihood of spoilers in this series given that it will typically cover older movies — read on at your own risk! The heyday of Vietnam War cinema can be roughly charted as the period between 1978 and 1989, beginning with The Deer Hunter and ending with Born on the Fourth of July. Being at least a few years removed from the end of the war (and decades from the beginning), the time was ripe for filmmakers to examine the horrors of the conflict that rapidly became infamous as one of America’s greatest failings. Many tried their hand, but there are a handful of standouts that have stood the test of time to be generally regarded as the best the era and subject matter had to offer: the aforementioned The Deer Hunter (directed by Michael Cimino, 1978) and Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989), along with Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), and Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987). Casualties of War (1989) has much in common with those movies beyond the subject matter (a popular auteur director in Brian De Palma, hot young stars in Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox, and general critical praise), but was a financial failure, grossing only $18.7 million against a $22.5 million budget. Apart from some vocal supporters like Quentin Tarantino, it seems to have been mostly forgotten — a shame, because of all the films listed above, Casualties of War may be the most pertinent and horrifyingly resonant today. Adapted from a 1969 New Yorker article by Daniel Lang (as well as his subsequent book), Casualties of War tells the true and stomach-churning story of a group of American soldiers who in 1966 kidnapped, raped, and murdered a Vietnamese woman named Phan Thi Mao (Than Thi Oanh in the film; all names were changed). As is appropriate for the subject matter, De Palma modulates his stylistic tendencies to a certain extent in what is perhaps the prolific director’s most measured effort — many of the visual flairs one would expect from him are present, but are carefully used in service of the story and the themes he's exploring, rather than as flourishes in their own right. Though De Palma does impressive work behind the camera, it's the performances here — including key supporting turns by Thuy Thu Le, John C. Reilly, and John Leguizamo — that really elevate the film. As Sergeant Meserve, the squad leader and driving force behind the horrific acts on display, Sean Penn is disconcertingly charismatic, especially early on, but the monstrousness of his character bubbles to the surface with nuance. There appears to be some critical consensus that Michael J. Fox, playing the junior officer who tries to prevent his comrades’ crimes, is comparatively a bit too lightweight for a film of this nature; it’s hard to square that judgment with the performance on the screen, as Fox is doing phenomenal work with a much trickier part than Penn’s. His fresh-faced Private First Class Eriksson is our example of morality, someone who isn't always brave enough to fully stand up to the wrongs of his brothers-in-arms, but whose convictions never waiver. This sort of role could easily be overshadowed by the more villainous performances on display here, but Fox embodies a unique blend of unwavering wholesomeness and frantically nervous energy that makes it impossible to take your eyes off of him. You trust him to do the right thing and you're devastated when he can't do enough. Now it’s true that Casualties is somewhat of a deviation from the films discussed above, which are typically held up as exemplars of both Vietnam War cinema and the “horrors of war” genre, as it manages to be simultaneously more and less cynical than many of its peers — it’s not only a brutally unflinching look at the savagery that men can perpetrate when given the opportunity, but also a moving portrait of decency. Though this tension may contribute to its seeming lack of acclaim today, the film deserves to be held in a much higher regard, especially given the landscape of modern society; though it came out 30 years ago, the reality it depicts hasn’t changed nearly enough. Upon hearing Private Eriksson’s report about the atrocities Meserve and the rest of his squad committed, his commanding officer tells him that one of the perpetrators is “only twenty” and asks whether Eriksson wants to “ruin his life” — a play to sympathy on behalf of men who have given women none. In the context of the film this exchange seems almost too on the nose, but of course in actuality it reflects the very real way in which crimes of this nature are enabled: through implied condonation and the absence of consequences. And in the end, maybe that’s part of the reason the film hasn’t taken its place among the greats — maybe it hits too close to home, strikes too raw a nerve. But it should be reevaluated and appreciated for what it is: a searing indictment of the entitlement of men, the cultures that breed and support that entitlement and the violence that comes with it, and an honest depiction of the uphill battle faced by those who believe in morality, justice, and accountability.