Casualties Of War

Brian De Palma’s Vietnam drama (1989), based on a true incident about the kidnapping, gang rape, and murder of a Vietnamese civilian (Thuy Thu Lee) by a squad of American soldiers. One of the five soldiers, a new recruit (Michael J. Fox), protests the kidnapping, refuses to participate in the rape, and subsequently gets the other four members of his squad court-martialed, despite official resistance. The story is basically told in flashback from his viewpoint, with particular emphasis on his own feelings of remorse for not having saved the woman’s life. The results are obviously sincere and relatively serious for De Palma (with a fresh handling of wide-screen composition that plays on some of the moral conflicts and ambiguities), but the entire film is predicated on a fairly unquestioning acceptance of the morality of the U.S. involvement in Vietnamthe issue of whether the highly principled hero enlisted or was drafted isn’t even brought upas well as a refusal to link this war with other U.S. involvements in the third world. So the feeling of helplessness that the film honors and provokes amounts to a moral cop-out rather than a genuine confrontation with what the war meant and continues to mean. Sean Penn, as the sergeant in the squad, chews up a lot of scenery, and Ennio Morricone pours on the tragic music to make sure that we get the point (and don’t linger on the wider issues that the film avoids); with Don Harvey, John C. Reilly, and Erik King. (JR)

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