Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Casualties of War (1989)

When I read The Devil’s Candy, about the making of Bonfire of the Vanities, I was struck with a strange sympathy for Brian De Palma. Coming off the failure of his last film, he was dejected, determined, and confused. Casualties of War, he’d said, was one of his most personal films, and he was personally offended it hadn’t found an audience.

I felt for the guy. I mean, it couldn’t be that bad—I’d just watched Bonfire. But watching Casualities of War is about the only method I can think of of making Bonfire look good.

The plot is based on real events and has potential. Michael J Fox, fairly new at this whole Vietnam thing, is assigned to a small group of soldiers headed by Sean Penn. To liven up their scouting mission, Penn suggests they pick up a local girl to bring along. He delivers this plan in a completely non-joking way that nevertheless leaves Fox in shock when he actually nabs a girl from her bed in the middle of the night and makes her accompany them, gagged and barefoot, through miles of jungle.

Now Fox has a dilemma—does he remain loyal to his fellow men? Or does he speak up about what happened?

De Palma tries very hard to make this quite fraught with moral tension. And fails. From the beginning we are treated to a view of the jungle that might as well be my backyard. Filmed on location though it was, the nighttime scenes look lit by stadium lights. De Palma appears to think he’s still directing urban thrillers. Everything’s too smooth, too clean. There is not a hint of the jungle out here; not a whiff of napalm in the morning. He does manage to crib from Browning’s Freaks, however, which is kind of impressive if you like that sort of thing.

But the worst thing about this film is that it doesn’t build up to the abduction, rape, and fallout at all. Suddenly we are intended to feel great tension surrounding this situation, when we have not been led to know these men. What, exactly, is Fox’s problem? He does not know these men, does not owe them his loyalty in the way soldiers with some sort of established bond do. There would appear to be no two ways about it. And the massive hurt and betrayal and angst we are supposed to feel when the girl is taken is so artificially induced as to make a true story seem contrived. That’s how badly this is handled; I was forced to doubt the reality of something that actually happened. Penn’s character is not drawn with any degree of complexity—certainly nothing to help us figure out why he has any caché with anyone when for all we can see he’s just a random asshole. I sense that the audience is supposed to be awed by the realization that “war makes men into animals,” but not only has that been done, it’s been done in Apocalypse Now, which I would much rather have been watching. At least that makes me feel the jungle, the death, the privation and primitivism that alters men’s minds. This movie did not need to be made unless someone had something brilliant and new to say. And no one involved seemed to.

The scenery, most of which I suspect was shot by second-unit director Eric Schwab, is gorgeous, but it does not adequately throw the dirty deeds of the Americans into relief. It’s not enough to let me look past the fact that Michael J Fox is apparently the lone voice of reason in the U.S. Army. Shabbily handled and unsuccessfully manipulative, Casualties of War left me craving Bonfire of the Vanities. Which really takes some doing.

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