De Palma’s Masterpiece: A Casualty of the Box Office

It would be nice to think that with the release of the new extended cut of Casualties of War, Brian De Palma’s masterpiece and one of the greatest of all American movies, would finally get its due. In 1989, America didn’t want to see another Vietnam movie. Now, mired in Iraq, viewers may see the movie as a startling precursor to some of the nightmares that have already arisen from this war.

The plural of the title is a clue. Casualties of War remains the only American film about the Vietnam War that addresses what the Vietnamese suffered. Mr. De Palma had been trying to make it since 1969, when he read, in The New Yorker, Daniel Lang’s account of a patrol of American G.I.’s who had abducted, raped and murdered a young Vietnamese girl. One of the patrol, Eriksson, a Lutheran kid from the Midwest who didn’t take part in the rape, reported the crime to his superiors, who wanted him to forget the whole thing. He couldn’t, and the other members of the patrol were eventually court-martialed and convicted, though given pathetically lenient sentences. Lang’s piece ended with Eriksson, returned home to his wife and daughter, fearing the men would come after him when they were released.

It’s a blessing that it took Mr. De Palma 20 years to get the movie made (if only for the fact that he got Michael J. Fox’s phenomenal performance as Eriksson). I mean no slight to the director’s powers of discernment to say that no matter how good it might have been, a Vietnam movie on this subject released while America was still in Vietnam would have been taken as a confirmation of the self-loathing that crept into American movies during the Vietnam/Watergate era.

Mr. De Palma’s view is broader and more despairing than that easy cynicism. The actions of Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) and the other men in the platoon—the bumpkin Hatcher (John C. Reilly), the reluctant new recruit Diaz (John Leguizamo) and the glowering sadist Clark (Don Harvey, giving a standard-issue psycho performance, the movie’s worst)—are not an example of American G.I.’s as imperialist goons, but of the state that war reduces men to. Behind Meserve and company’s actions are the casual atrocities committed in every war, evidenced in a 1943 Life magazine photo of a young woman on the World War II home front regarding a boyfriend’s letter written on a Japanese skull, and evidenced in the photos from Abu Ghraib. (There is something in particular in the face of John C. Reilly’s clueless rube that matches up with the thick, blocked deadness of Lynndie England’s features.)

But this idea is not to be confused with the view of Eriksson’s superiors, who tell him that the rape and murder of that Vietnamese girl is one of those things that happen in wartime and that he’d best forget about it. Mr. De Palma differentiates understanding how things are from the moral complacency that can come from that knowledge.

Eriksson, the “cherry” who’s only been in country for three weeks, can’t forget about what he’s seen. As he says, that would be as if the girl, Oanh (played with heartrending directness by Thuy Thu Le), never existed. But he can’t help holding himself accountable for not saving her, though short of deserting with the girl or killing his fellow soldiers, there seems nothing he could have done. That guilt is what makes Eriksson the most tragic of all Mr. De Palma’s heroes—stricken chivalrics haunted by their inability to save a woman.

Much of the writing about Casualties at the time of its release condescendingly focused on or dismissed a “TV actor” taking on a difficult dramatic role. But Mr. Fox is amazing, drawing us in with his immense likeability and then showing this Midwestern kid’s fresh open face taken over by dazed, hounded fear, becoming closed-off, suspicious. Eriksson never doubts the rightness of reporting the murder. And that only makes him feel more alone. This is a world where Eriksson’s lieutenant can tell him that Oanh’s screams mean nothing next to the screams he’s heard from American soldiers.

Casualties of War is a summation of Mr. De Palma’s themes and techniques up to that time. (The beautifully lucid cinematography is by Stephen H. Burum.) In one shot, a prelude to a surprise Vietcong attack, the camera gently lifts up from Eriksson and another soldier to show, in the background, a vast landscape of villagers all walking in the other direction. We see that shot before we’re given the information to register its meaning. Later, in a variation of Mr. De Palma’s split-screen technique, Eriksson, in close-up on the right side of the screen, defends himself from enemy fire while, on the left side of the screen, in medium shot, Clark stabs Oanh.

More than dazzling technique, those shots contain the movie’s meaning. This is a place where it’s impossible for the inhabitants to see everything at once. In accusing Meserve, Eriksson is condemning a man who has twice saved his life, and whose smarts have saved the lives of other members of their squad. But that debt is another casualty here, made a pittance by the gravity of Oanh’s murder.

Oanh is both muse and tormentor to Eriksson, the figure whose memory shows him what has to be done and nearly destroys him in the process. Her murder reverberates because Mr. De Palma marries his talent for sudden violence, the jolts of his thrillers, to the depths of tragedy. Mr. De Palma has long and stupidly been accused of being a misogynist because his films show violence against women (by that logic, Schindler’s List is anti-Semitic). It’s always the holes left by the deaths of his women characters that hover over his movies, and it’s what leaves Eriksson looking as if he’s being eaten alive from the inside out. Now, when we are once again being eaten alive by what we are doing, we could do worse than turn to a movie that is both unflinching and rejects cynicism and despair, that holds some hope for the possibility of acting decently, though no promise that doing so will leave us unscarred. This American masterpiece still awaits discovery.