Picks and Pans Review: Casualties of War

updated 08/28/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/28/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn

As this film ends and the closing credits begin, an ethereal chorus oohs and aahs solemnly on the sound track, telling us two things: (1) This has been a serious Vietnam film about moral issues, in case you dozed off during the first 118 minutes, and (2) director Brian DePalma and screenwriter David Rabe couldn't bring themselves to let well enough alone at the end any more than they could during the rest of the movie.

By intruding on a story that needs no embellishment—an American patrol kidnaps, rapes and murders a young Vietnamese woman—they keep insulting the audience's intelligence. They might as well hold up signs: THIS IS A MOVING SCENE, THIS IS PHILOSOPHICALLY QUESTIONABLE. THIS PRESENTS A DIFFICULT CHOICE.

It's a tribute to Fox and Penn that they turn in such compassionate, eloquent, altogether extraordinary dramatic performances. Penn is an Americal Division squad leader with only a short time left on his Vietnam tour when his best friend is killed, nudging him over the line into a ruthless insanity; it's his idea to kidnap the woman and take her on the patrol. Fox is the recent replacement who, even though Penn saved his life in a previous firefight, is the only member of the five-man squad to oppose the kidnapping.

Both Fox and Penn do their best acting when they have the fewest lines. Penn, for instance, seems to pause every once in a while, as if he's going through a self-administered mental checkup; every time, he emerges solidly confident that there's nothing wrong with what he's doing, and that confidence is apparent in the way he smiles, the way he holds his body. Fox has a scene in which he's alone with the woman—played by Vietnamese refugee Thuy Thu Le (see page 47)—and tries to communicate to her his shame, frustration and sympathy even though they don't speak each other's language. He does so with a minimum of histrionics, to a maximum effect.

Foisted on Fox, however, are some outrageously gratuitous speeches. It's clear that Fox's dilemma of conscience is the film's crux, yet he has to keep hitting us over the noggin with it: "This goddamned thing is turning me on my head. We're getting it backward. We're acting as if it doesn't matter what we do." Such lines contribute neither information nor poetry to the movie; it's as if Hamlet, instead of saying "To be or not to be," said, "Geez, they knocked off my dad, and I can't figure out what the heck to do about it."

Le, who has never acted before, is effective in a one-dimensional role—all she has to do is act terrified. Erik King mixes conviviality and toughness as Penn's buddy. And Dale Dye, the real Vietnam vet who appeared in Platoon, pulls off his role as a cynical company commander.

Two crucial members of Penn's squad, Don (Eight Men Out) Harvey and Chicago stage actor John C. Reilly, are too full of actorly quirks. But they aren't as distracting as DePalma and Rabe, who have taken a powerful story, based on an incident in the Central Highlands in 1966, and wasted it. What might have been a film with the power of From Here to Eternity is a movie that—despite Fox's and Penn's brilliance-shoots itself in the foot. (R)

From Our Partners