In Brian De Palma’s Vietnam drama, Michael J. Fox is the only member of his five-man unit who refuses to rape a Vietnamese woman they capture, but he’s plagued by the guilt of not being able to stop them. Afterwards he believes he should charge them even though they had saved his life. Besides the improbable rarity of seeing a war movie filmed with a steadicam, and its unlikely but ingenious marriage to a soaring Morricone score that feels more like Donaggio’s classic collaborations with De Palma, Casualties of War also has one of the most interesting “messages” of Vietnam films.
It insists that right and wrong still exist even in a war full of terrible grays, yet it does so without over-simplifying the various motivations for war crimes, whether revenge (Sean Penn), sadism (Don Harvey), depravity (John C. Reilly), or intimidation (John Leguizamo). And rather than depict a cover-up driven by evil intent, it presents more than one credible reason for ignoring the atrocity, not the least of which is protecting one’s own family.
Michael J. Fox, the Lutheran protagonist, is not a self-righteous crusader but a compromised individual who faces two genuinely difficult dilemmas. The movie’s ultimate theme is finally expressed by him when he says:
Just because we could all be blown away, everybody’s acting like we can do anything. And it don’t matter what we do. But I think it’s the other way around. The main thing is the opposite. Because we might die in the next second, maybe we gotta be extra careful what we do. Because maybe it matters more. Maybe it matters more than we even know.
The result is a combination of CS Lewis’ Abolition of Man and John Woo’s Bullet in the Head. It is at the same time oppressively despairing and inspiringly optimistic. Some would say naively optimistic in its belief in justice. But I think it is for all of these reasons an appropriately philosophical film that acknolwedges both the horrors of evil and the perseverance of good.