Depalma Wages War On Vietnam

August 18, 1989|By BILL KELLEY, Special to the News/Sun-Sentinel

Casualties of War is a film of surprises, not the least of which is that it manages to convincingly team Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox as a pair of GIs involved in one of the darkest chapters of the Vietnam War.

The movie is based on a 1969 New Yorker magazine article that reported the abduction and rape of a North Vietnamese peasant woman by a squad of American soldiers. That incident forms the centerpiece of the film.

Although there is nothing especially imaginative in the casting of Penn as the squad leader who instigates the crime and the boyish-looking Fox as a GI who tries to stop it, practically everything else about this remarkable film is as original as it is disturbing.

Other movies, most notably Platoon, have explored the dehumanizing effect of the Vietnam War on the American men who fought in it. Some have even included sequences depicting atrocities such as the one shown in Casualties of War. Few have taken the approach selected by playwright David Rabe, who wrote the screenplay for Casualties of War, and Brian DePalma, who directed it.

Given the fact that the material is not particularly original, it follows that its treatment must be, if the movie is to work at all. DePalma`s involvement in Casualties of War, then, is doubly surprising. He is primarily known as a director of Hitchcock-movie clones (Sisters, Obsession, Body Double) and last year`s The Untouchables, which featured a shoot-out lifted shot-for-shot from Eisenstein`s Battleship Potemkin. DePalma has forged a career out of imitating the filmmaking styles of the acknowledged masters. His earlier movies are flashy diversions, and little else.

Casualties of War is a radical and unexpected departure. Most of the way, it is a film of power, confidence and consistent maturity. Directors of movies about Vietnam usually struggle to make the ``definitive`` movie about the war. DePalma selected a minimalist style, refusing to fashion Casualties of War as a microcosm for the entire debacle. It`s the best decision connected with the film, instantly elevating it to a higher level than others in its genre.

DePalma and Rabe also balance the widely disparate dramatic elements of the film -- the war, the rape, the aftermath of the crime and the uneasy relationship of the GIs -- with such skill and narrative economy that the ending is both coherent and very moving. The film`s point is driven home cogently and subtly, without preaching. Satisfying endings are so rare in Vietnam movies that, merely for managing to answer the questions it poses, Casualties of War is a unique achievement.

DePalma has said that he wanted to film Casualties of War immediately after reading the New Yorker article 20 years ago. That may explain why this film is as fine as it is, and particularly why it is better than most of DePalma`s other movies: He has had nearly 20 years to prepare it.

Despite its many qualities, the film is not perfect. As usual in a DePalma movie, the dialogue contains so much profanity that it loses its effectiveness. And two early dialogue scenes display the sluggish, off-kilter rhythm of failed improvisation. But they don`t last long enough to seriously damage the movie.

DePalma does not hesitate to manipulate the audience in Casualties of War, although for once the tactic is not used merely to keep us from getting bored or to prop up a faulty script. DePalma places more emphasis on the complex characters in this film than on the cinematic trickery that is his trademark.

This approach results in some of the best performances ever in a DePalma movie, particularly by Fox, who has to portray innocence, rage and courage simultaneously. And Penn, who slides with alarming ease into what is easily the least sympathetic role of his career, is genuinely frightening.

Casualties of War has its share of firefights, explosions and gory bouts of hand-to-hand combat -- a catalog of attention-grabbing gimmicks that most war movies would readily exploit. But DePalma uses them judiciously. When he chooses to jolt the audience out of its complacency, he does it through one of the film`s characters, rather than by blowing something up or (as he has done in the past) mimicking a suspense scene from a Hitchcock movie. Casualties of War may begin with a sequence that is as suspenseful as anything in DePalma`s other movies, yet fans of the director who are hoping for his standard roller- coaster ride, packed with visual ``quotes`` from vintage suspense movies, will be disappointed.

Casualties of War carries an R rating, has been promoted with an appropriately harsh ad campaign and has all of the gory violence one would expect in a Vietnam movie. Nevertheless, most of the audience at the preview I attended had apparently been expecting a flag-waving, gung-ho vehicle for Fox, the former star of television`s Family Ties sitcom. Anyone seeking that sort of film -- or, for that matter, Rambo -- should stay as far from this movie as possible.


A squad of GIs in Vietnam abducts and rapes a young North Vietnamese woman.

Credits: Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn. Written by David Rabe. Directed by Brain DePalma.

R - Rape, profanity, gory violence.

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