Vietnam War movies are always tough to watch, especially for those of us who go through life burdened with liberal guilt. But of all the Vietnam movies out there, none is more painful to watch -- and paradoxically more beautifully shot -- than Casualties of War, in which all of director Brian De Palma's prodigious talents are in full effect. To steal a line from another Vietnam classic: "The horror..."
Based on an allegedly true event that was reported in the New Yorker, Casualties is a stripped-down tale of a small platoon of Army grunts who head into the jungle only to lose their humanity, a trope that has traveled from Conrad to Coppola to here. It's Satan in paradise, wreaking havoc and leaving unexplainable carnage behind.
The combat-hardened platoon leader Meserve (Sean Penn) comes up with the idea to kidnap a village girl (Thuy Thu Le) and bring her along on their trip as a sex slave. As the top-ranked soldier, he is to be obeyed by the four other soldiers in the group, and the fact that he's a very screwed-up kind of guy only adds to the fear with which they regard them. There isn't much initial resistance, except from the mild-mannered Ericksson (Michael J. Fox), who is new to Vietnam and finds himself mercilessly bullied by his superior. He gets agreement from only one other solider, Diaz (John Leguizamo), that they won't participate in sex with the girl. The other soldiers, Clark (Don Harvey) and Hatcher (John C. Reilly), think it's a pretty good idea overall. Clearly their moral compasses have been thrown out of whack by too much time in the bush.
Try to imagine how horrific the film's climactic scenes are. Now imagine something much worse. It's excruciating to witness what happens as Meserve ultimately gets what he wants and forces the others to participate, in some cases at the point of a rifle. De Palma doesn't just go for gore. The horror here is magnified by his insistence on contrasting the crime with the absolutely beautiful environment in which it takes place. It's paradise lost for sure.
Back on base, Eriksson makes the brave if naïve decision to report the platoon's actions, and for his efforts he's treated like a pariah. Fox, only one year beyond his Family Ties sitcom silliness, rises to the challenges of acting as the film's moral voice and sharing scenes with the always intimidating Penn. Also keep your eye on the young Leguizamo, who tackles a tough role with real bravery and honesty.
If De Palma makes any mistake at all, it's sticking with the script (co-authored by Vietnam vet David Rabe) and including an epilogue that dilutes the film's power rather than enhance it. It's jarring and not really necessary to find Eriksson riding a San Francisco bus on a lovely sunny day several years after the fact. The rather obvious point to be made is that even in such a pleasant setting he's haunted by his experiences, but we could safely assume that after seeing what's seen.
Despite that minor blip, Casualties of War ably demonstrates just how powerful a well-crafted film can be. You'll be utterly wiped out by the time it's over. Proceed into the jungle at your own risk.