Thursday, April 19, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.16: Brian De Palma's Casualties of War

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 84 (A-)

When Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables became a runaway hit at the box office, it gave the director to put together his dream project, a Vietnam War film called Casualties of War. De Palma had a history with the war- the director did everything he could to get out of it, made a satire of Vietnam draft dodgers (1968’s Greetings), and when he read the story of the rape and killing of a Vietnamese girl by American troops, he knew he had to make a film about it. He got his chance in 1989. Casualties of War bombed at the box office- too many Vietnam War films had come out in the 80s (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Born on the Fourth of July). But years later, Casualties of War stands out as perhaps the most powerful and humanistic of the wave- it doesn’t have Oliver Stone’s overwrought tendencies or Kubrick’s coldness. It is an emotionally devastating experience.

Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) is a new soldier in Vietnam. His platoon is led by Sgt. Tony Merserve (Sean Penn), a charismatic individual and natural leader. When one member of their squad is killed by a Viet Cong group, Meserve and the rest of the soldiers are angry. Meserve orders the kidnapping of a Vietnamese girl (Thuy Thu Le), and the platoon takes her on patrol. Eriksson and fellow soldier Diaz (John Leguizamo) object, but neither are brave enough to do anything about it. The soldiers beat, rape, and eventually kill the girl, and when Eriksson decides to bring this to his commanding officers, he finds that the military is more concerned with their own reputation than with the life of a Vietnamese girl.

Lest ye think that De Palma might hold back on his stylistic tendencies for a more somber story, Casualties of War is a dynamic piece of filmmaking. De Palma uses long tracking shots to show soldiers out of their element. He uses split-diopter to show Fox’s character not noticing details that could save lives (such as a fellow soldier stabbing the girl off screen). The film uses long, intricate set-pieces like past De Palma films, but here they’re not exhilarating- they’re horrifying. When De Palma strands Fox in a hole in the ground, he slowly pans down to reveal a Viet Cong tunnel beneath him, with soldiers just waiting to kill him; only Penn’s quick action saves him, and then only barely. He uses a Halloween-esque POV-tracking shot (as he had for subversive use in Dressed to Kill and Blow Out) first in the kidnapping of the girl, and secondly in an attempt on Eriksson’s life late in the film, in a handful of genuinely frightening scenes.

The biggest set-piece of the movie, however, rivals even Blow Out for pure emotional resonance. The girl is ill. She’s been raped and beaten multiple times by everyone other than Eriksson (Diaz gave in). She’s now coughing up a storm, threatening to give away their position to the enemy. Meserve orders his fellow soldiers to kill her, but even after the vicious Clarke (Don Harvey) stabs her several times, she still has fight left in her. As the soldiers get into a shootout with the Viet Cong army (in a sequence which resembles and subverts the bridge stakeout in The Untouchables), Meserve notices her and orders the other soldiers to shoot her. De Palma uses several pieces of his cinematic vocabulary- extreme close-up on faces (the girl struggling, Meserve ranting, Eriksson yelling fruitlessly objections), agonizing Hitchcockian suspense (the hesitancy of the soldiers to shoot the girl as she slowly ambles across a bridge, Eriksson racing to save her only to be hit by Meserve), and the aid of swelling, tragic music (Ennio Morricone’s magnificent score).

Morricone had previously collaborated with De Palma on The Untouchables, but Casualties of War’s soundtrack ranks high above the previous film as one of Morricone’s strongest and most underrated works. He uses the pan-flute (as he had in Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America) to insinuate a profound sense of loss. There’s heroic music in the early going, but it has a highly subversive tone congruent to the film. The suspense scenes have nerve-wracking, intense, minimalistic moments. The death of fellow soldier Brown gets its own piece, “Brown’s Requiem”, to show that the death of an American soldier shouldn’t be understated- there’s plenty of tragedy here. But it doesn’t compare to the main theme, a more pronounced theme that shows inevitability in the early going only to build up to a heart-wrenching level at the girl’s death.

It’s a highly tragic film, and there’s no war clichés here. The characters all feel well-rounded- Meserve and the other guilty soldiers are far more complicated than the broadly drawn characters in Platoon. Hatcher (an excellent John C. Reilly in his first film role) isn’t a monster, but rather a dumb, easily led kid whose idealized view of the military doesn’t quite jive with reality. Clark is a violent man, but his camaraderie with his fellow soldiers leaves room for humanity that’s slowly been whittled away by the horrors of war. Diaz is a good person who knows what he’s about to do is wrong, but he’s also a coward who buckles under pressure. Even the authority figures (played by Ving Rhames and Dale Dye) aren’t all-out monsters- one doesn’t think there’s anything he can do about it, the other knows it was wrong but wants to preserve the notion that the army is doing the right thing. It doesn’t justify any of their actions (if anything it makes it worse), but it makes them more human than many soldier portrayals of the past had been. These aren’t Oliver Stone’s polarized characters, but they’re not John Ford’s people either (there are a few shots that subvert Ford’s righteous westerns).

Penn’s excellent performance as Meserve perhaps best exemplifies the difference between Casualties of War and other Vietnam films. Tony Meserve isn’t a bad egg from the beginning- it’s easy to like the guy in the early going, even if he doesn’t have the most sophisticated view of the Vietnamese people. He defends his men, and he has a charismatic bravado. When the horrific ordeal begins, he becomes more exaggeratedly macho and aggressive, accusing Eriksson of being “a faggot” for not wanting to take part in this. He’s keeping up his own image of what the army looks like, thought- this isn’t the real him. This is a man who’s been torn apart by war and who now can no longer tell right from wrong. When he tries to appeal to Eriksson later on, it’s clear that he’s not a total monster. But wrong is wrong, and this act of evil can’t be justified no matter how he tries to paint the innocent farm girl as a “VC whore”. It’s more horrifying, more realistic, and far more complicated than the often cartoonishly evil Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

Fox’s popularity/likability from Back to the Future and Family Ties makes him more adept at personifying American Goodness than Charlie Sheen could have in Platoon, but he also shows how basic decency doesn’t necessarily make for strong character. Eriksson is a naïve but good-hearted person with a more empathetic view towards the Vietnamese, but when his fellow soldiers commit reprehensible atrocities against a young girl, he does nothing. He’s one of De Palma’s voyeurs- a watcher and a judge, but far too weak and helpless to actually do the right thing and save the day. Whenever he gets a chance to change things, he hesitates or acts too slowly.

De Palma was often criticized for misogyny in his films. Critics argued that he enjoyed cutting up women, citing Dressed to Kill and Body Double as egregious examples. But those films showed a man whose empathy was always with the victim, not the perpetrator. Casualties of War is the ultimate example of this- this girl (in a fearless performance by Le) isn’t sexualized. She’s a young girl. But her youth, femininity, and impoverished state has made her an ideal target for crazed young men. De Palma makes the audience complicit with their crimes- Fox’s failure to act is almost accusatory towards the audience for their failure to prevent horrible deeds like this in Vietnam. But where there was usually something thrilling in past De Palma films, there’s nothing but unbridled terror in the brutal rape and murder scenes. This isn’t something to be joked about. This is real, this is tragic, and something terrible has happened.

It’s all a fitting metaphor for the Vietnam War itself- good men who lose their morals and perpetuate horrible acts, decent men unwilling or unable to do anything about it, authority figures less worried about doing the right thing than cleaning up messes, and innocents victimized. Many of the soldiers have no empathy for their target (“we gotta win her heart and mind, if she’s got one”), much like the U.S. Army had little empathy for the Vietnamese people. Many of them can’t tell the difference between an innocent girl and the enemy, or don’t care when it’s pointed out. “We’re supposed to be here to help these people”, says Eriksson, but his good intentions don’t mirror those of everyone else, and somewhere along the way any good intentions were lost.

It’s a shame that arguably the most powerful film De Palma ever made is just short of being a masterpiece. De Palma and his cast take the right tone throughout, but David Rabe’s script includes a speech late in the film by Fox’s character that puts too fine a point on the importance of doing the right thing in war (“We act like we can do anything because we can get blown away…maybe we gotta act like good people now, more than ever”). It doesn’t even compare, however, to a whopper of a framing device involving Fox back home in America. Fox sees a girl who looks like the dead Vietnamese girl (Le again, but voiced by Amy Irving and with a fake nose to look just different enough), and in the final moments of the film, she more or less clears his lingering guilt by telling him that his ordeal is over. The scene is well acted and shot, and the dream-sequence structure plays into De Palma’s fascination with fever dreams (Sisters, for example) and with doubles (too many to list). But while De Palma’s intentions are admirable (he said he wanted to signal a time to move on for American soldiers), it just doesn’t work. That lingering guilt Fox’s character has is what’s going to stick around, for better or worse. That’s what makes the whole ordeal so powerful.

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