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Casualties of War
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The acclaimed "author director" and Alfred Hitchcock impressionist Brian De Palma took a brief but interesting detour into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking in the mid-to-late ‘80s. Teaming up with uber-producer Art Linson (Car Wash, Melvin and Howard, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) he made the highly commercial gangster picture The Untouchables in 1987. That slick production boasted an exciting cast—including the judicious use of Robert De Niro as Al Capone and Sean Connery in his Oscar-winning role—and a script by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter David Mamet. De Palma and Linson quickly re-teamed for this darker film based on events that occurred during the Vietnam War, in which a squad of American soldiers kidnapped a Vietnamese woman from her village, subsequently raping and murdering her. Employing another high profile playwright—David Rabe (In the Boom Boom Room, Streamers, Hurlyburly) to adapt Daniel Lang's 1969 New Yorker article that exposed this wartime atrocity, Casualties of War was a much tougher sell to the movie-going public. But, in many ways, it is the best picture by Brian De Palma in that it puts all of his virtuosic cinematic style to an actual use beyond just showing off how much fun it is to make movies. Most of De Palma’s movies are fun, but they're rarely about anything. Casualties of War has a compelling narrative that covers important themes without being overly heavy-handed or sentimental.  

Rabe, who served as a medic in Vietnam and wrote many plays about his experience as an Army draftee (including the Tony Award-winners Sticks and Bones and The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel) disassociated himself from the finished picture, but he is surely responsible for much of its depth. This is one of those rare Hollywood occurrences where just the right director teamed up with just the right producer to bring just the right writer’s material to a mainstream audience. Timing was everything for this movie and, even though it did not fair well at the box-office nor achieve the acclaim of Apocalypse NowThe Deer HunterPlatoon, or Full Metal Jacket, this honest, relatively unsensationalized Vietnam story reached a much wider audience than any would have expected. 

Casualties of War is an immersive big-screen picture with the intimacy and power of a great stage play. Each character resonates as a unique individual with their own complex set of strengths, flaws, and motivations. Watching this small drama play out conveys more about the criminal folly of America’s involvement in political wars than most of the other, grander, large-scale Vietnam films of the decade. Casualties of War also has the distinction of being the movie in which Michael J. Fox delivers as fine a performance as Sean Penn. Penn, as always, buries himself in his part, transforming his diminutive frame into the larger-than-life, brutal Sergeant Tony Meserve. Fox is saddled with the much more difficult, far less showy, role of the mild-mannered grunt Private Max Eriksson, who objects to his vengeful squad leader’s contemptuous and highly illegal orders to kidnap the young Vietnamese woman. Fox simultaneously plays confusion, fear, uncertainty, and anger all within the confines of his trademark “lovable little guy” screen persona. The movie also boasts a terrific supporting cast featuring John Leguizamo, Don Patrick Harvey, Ving Rhames, Dale Dye, Wendell Pierce, Sam Robards, and John C. Reilly in his first film role.

Twitter Capsule:
Brutal true story about a squad of Americans who kidnap a Vietnamese woman from her village is De Palma's finest film and one of the best Vietnam War movies. An immersive big-screen picture with the intimacy and richly drawn characters of a great stage play.

Directed by Brian De Palma
Produced by Art Linson

Screenplay by David Rabe
Based on the book by Daniel Lang

With: Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, Don Harvey, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Thuy Thu Le, Erik King, Jack Gwaltney, Ving Rhames, Dan Martin, Dale Dye, Wendell Pierce, Sam Robards, Stephen Baldwin, and Amy Irving

Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Editing: Bill Pankow
Music: Ennio Morricone

Runtime: 121 min
Release Date: 18 August 1989
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1