Movie Rehab: Fox vs. Penn in Brian De Palma's overlooked 'Casualties Of War'
It is the responsibility of the working film critic to not only offer opinion and context for the newest releases, but also to constantly champion and curate the films that matter, especially if they were misunderstood or poorly released or somehow handled badly the first time around.
Critics should take it upon themselves to rehabilitate the under-loved, to defend the wrongly-maligned, and rehab the films that need it; it is the only way film as a whole can be healthy.
Brian De Palma has had exactly two moments in his career when everything broke his way, commercially and artistically.
The first was early on, and "Carrie" was lightning in a bottle. It was a best-selling book that was written in this fevered language, as much a matter of the author's immaturity as the actual urgency of the story, but it launched Stephen King's career, deservedly, and the film version managed to tap into that same sense of momentum. De Palma turned out to be the perfect guy to give voice to that films mix of woozy revenge fantasy and bottomless angst.
It seemed like eons went by between that film and "The Untouchables," culturally speaking, but it was actually just 11 years. Even so, "The Untouchables" is a totally different animal, burnished and bronze and manly through and through. A blockbuster designed specifically to make everybody's dad stand up and yell "Hell, yes!" about 20 times, with the performance that launched Sean Connery to permanent superstar status after years in the wilderness.
Both films are unmistakably his work, so it's not like he had to give up his identity to have a hit, but those films were such perfect fits for him that it seemed like they were just effortless. He cast them perfectly, he knew exactly how to play them, and he directed them like he was being chased.
One of the reasons De Palma didn't always replicate that degree of commercial success is because he has a genuinely seedy streak to his work, and beyond that, he's a subversive smart-ass. He doesn't really take pop culture seriously, but he takes it super-seriously in some other ways. He always applies a high degree of gloss and finesse to everything he does, even if he's flipping the middle finger to the establishment in the process.
I'm not sure how he ever talked anyone at Columbia to say yes to what must have been a difficult sell even when every studio was scrambling to make movies about Vietnam. I know this was a project he carried around for a while. Keep in mind, this was only 14 years after the fall of Saigon, a mere 20 years after the first report of the events that inspired the film. Vietnam feels like ancient history at this point, but the opening title card of this film read:
"This film is based on an actual incident that occurred during the Vietnam War. It was first reported by Daniel Lang in The New Yorker magazine in 1969."
The thing that I didn't really understand in 1989 was just how recent a wound this was. At this point, if you do a movie about 9/11, that happened longer ago than the events in this film did when the movie hit theaters. In the opening scene, the only real period detail is a newspaper in the bottom right hand corner of the frame with the headline "Nixon Resigns." That puts a pretty definitive pin in a point in time, but the people and the setting was pretty much exactly as it would have been in 1989 anyway. De Palma didn't push the costumes to a preposterous level.
That first push in on Fox, asleep, as he wakes up and sees a young student sitting on the subway across from him played by Thuy Thu Le, the same actress who we'll see later in the movie in one of the most punishing film debuts of all time. He looks at her for a moment, registers the face, and then falls back into his troubled sleep. I think the script, by David Rabe, is beautifully structured, and far more than "just" another movie about Vietnam.
The first scene of the squad in the field begins at night, with Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) taking orders from Lt. Reilly (Ving Rhames) and Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn). Eriksson is paired with PFC Hatcher (John C. Reilly), and the two of them are supposed to set up claymores around the perimeter of their camp. Instead, as Hatch tries to plant one of the explosives, he worries about finding a tunnel. Explosions start to sound somewhere nearby, and we see that Reilly gets frantic quickly, while Meserve is almost too calm. Eriksson ends up dropping into a hole that's opened up by a mortal strike, and ends up with his lower half dangling into one of the tunnels Hatcher was talking about.
Right away, this scene is better shot and staged and written than about 90% of all the films made about Vietnam during that ten year period where we were really cranking them out. We learn about the dynamics of this particular platoon, the way Meserve serves to make Reilly look good, the way the guys all look to Meserve, just how green Eriksson really is. This was the first time I saw John C. Reilly, and from the very first time we hear Hatcher speak, Reilly was already the John C. Reilly that we still know and love. He's the last guy you want to get stuck with, dim and sort of sweet, looking for a leader he can follow.
The way De Palma ratchets up the tension during the sequence, with the Vietcong soldier crawling toward Eriksson, who has no idea what's happening below him, even as Meserve tries to comfort one of the other soldiers who's been messed up pretty badly, is masterful. Meserve finally reaches Eriksson and rescues him, neither of them aware just how close the Vietcong got to Eriksson. They're pinned down by a guy in a tree, and Meserve barks some orders to Eriksson. They work together, take out the guy in the tree, and we can see how natural this is to Meserve and how hard Eriksson is working in that moment to be like him. He swears to sound more like Meserve, but it just doesn't sound right coming out of him. Eriksson lets his guard down too early and, for the second time, Meserve has to save him from the guy from the tunnel.
One of the main reactions I heard from people who dismissed "Casualties Of War" during its theatrical run in August of 1989 was that they didn't want to watch Michael J. Fox in a Vietnam film, that they simply didn't believe he was right to be a soldier. Even then, I didn't buy that as a legitimate gripe. First, Fox is a good actor, and always has been. Second, Vietnam wasn't a particularly picky war in terms of who the Army was willing to send over, and if a guy like Fox had enlisted or been drafted, they would have sent him happily. I think De Palma and Rabe get the racial balance right in the film, and beyond that, I think it's a nice cross-section of types so that when things go south… and they do… it's not just an either/or situation between Eriksson and Meserve. The acting styles of Sean Penn circa-1989 and Michael J. Fox circa ever couldn't be more different, and I like that friction that seems to exist between them. There's this huge macho swinging dick energy that Penn gives off where he basically tries to annihilate Fox through sheer force of personality alone. The Fox casting not only is not a problem for me, it's one of the things I love about the film the most. I was thrilled that he decided to try and stretch and ended up working with one of my favorite filmmakers at the time, and I thought it paid off in a genuine tension onscreen.