Wednesday, June 30, 2010

An under appreciated Vietnam movie

Casualties of War
starring Sean Penn and Michael J.Fox
Directed by Brian De Palma

This is one of DePalma's best films, a straight forward and powerfully told morality tale , highlighted with notable performances from Michael J.Fox and Sean Penn. De Palma has always been a master of moving the camera in virtuoso turns (or rather, someone who has mastered the virtuoso camera turns of others, ie Hitchcock, Eisenstein, et al), but he is too often a lousy story teller, replacing a tricky sensationalism for plausibility. Here, he gets the combination right, a crucial issue at hand--at what point do liberators fighting for an Essential Good become worse than the evil they think they're fighting?-- the right script , the right actors, a balanced trifecta that compels the would be maestro to keep his film making in balance as well.

There is not a wasted scene, not a gratuitous cut or splice to hijack this movie's power. Michael J.Fox does a credible job as a soldier with religious convictions that are in conflict with his Mission, who's perimeters, he finds, are being improvised and diminished, and Sean Penn is stunning as hyper-macho team leader whose loyalty for the good of the men under his command changes from Good Soldier to Concentrated Evil; his sense of morality is shattered and ground to dust and there is a gleaming insanity just behind those radiating blue eyes. What additionally comes into an articulate focus are De Palma's views on violence towards women at the hands of warped men.

Rather too often in films, women seemed little more than witless innocents or scheming, sulking whores who were engineering their violent ends due to a variety of self-scheming schemes; leeches, blood suckers, vampires, debilitating things to be poked, shot, prodded with blunt instruments, drills, knives. The director, a competent technician with a conspicuous  desire to sit among the greats in the Auteur Pantheon , seemed to have issues with women, issues that seemed to find only extreme resolutions. The ambivalent treatment of the misogyny made you wonder whether DePalma was an inept moralist who couldn't make his movies perform both as entertainments and moral inquiries, or if he was merely interested in the thrill of seeing women abused by disgruntled men.

With Casualties of War, the focus turns  the churning culture of men  in war time, on a band of soldiers who recreate and embrace their loyalty only to one another in the field to the tragic exclusion of all else. DePalma lines up the scenes of escalating violence and decreasing reason, until Penn's character offers up a lone Vietnamese women for his men to rape, offered up like a cash reward for a job well done; this is more than a melodramatic turn according to a prefigured script, but an effective, disturbingly presented result of group thinking. The issue aren't nuanced considerations of good versus evil and what appropriate and punishments should be meted out--it is a  blunt, plain truth, the inflicting of pain by the powerful against the weak. This problematic director for once gets that across forcefully, artfully, unambiguously.