Picks and Pans Review: 84 Charlie Mopic

updated 05/01/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/01/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Directed by Patrick Duncan

It's no criticism to say that this is another microcosmic movie about a few American soldiers in Vietnam. The people doing the killing and getting killed are hardly irrelevant to wars, and this film creates sharp portraits of a half-dozen young men as it breathes down the neck of a 173rd Airborne Brigade reconnaissance squad on patrol.

The movie also suggests, however, that the Vietnam War is playing one more bitter joke on the United States by defying one of our most revered institutions, Hollywood. This was a war with few of the dramatic flourishes—no submarines, no colorful naval battles, few large-scale operations of any kind—and that doesn't leave a lot to make movies about. It's as if all movies about World War II were along the lines of Bataan or Jungle Fighters. This film comes fairly early in the Vietnam squad genre, before the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off. And it is exceptionally well written and directed by 173rd Airborne veteran Patrick Duncan (supervising writer of HBO's Vietnam War Story) and acted by a group of uncelebrated but talented men.

The title comes from the Army military specialty designation for a cameraman, and the whole movie is seen through the lens of the character assigned to film one of the squad's patrols. The technique pulls a viewer into the middle of the small group. It's hard to watch the film without feeling some of the acutely heightened senses of the squad members. Duncan, who was an infantryman, has obviously not forgotten what the war felt like. There is the shiftless guy, played by Nicholas Cascone, whose tour is almost up, and the new lieutenant, Jonathan Emerson, who has volunteered to lead the squad because he needs a combat command to enhance his career. There are the black squad leader, Richard Brooks, and his best friend, a white South Carolinian, Glenn Morshower. Christopher Burgard and Jason Tomlins play the other two squad members; Byron Thames is the cameraman.

The vicious contrast between the boyish side of these young soldiers and their ability to become horrifyingly murderous is the strongest part of the movie. It remains to be seen, however, how long movie audiences will continue to subject themselves to this kind of emotional upheaval, dragging out the war onscreen as it lingered in reality. (R)

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