Even in war…murder is still murder.
In 1989, director Brian De Palma (Mission: Impossible, Mission To Mars) brought actors Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking) and Michael J. Fox (Back To The Future) together for the true life inspired tale about the brutality and immoral actions of one army platoon during the Vietnam War. Based on the book by Daniel Long and written by Vietnam veteran and playwright David Rabe, Casualties Of War is a harrowing look inside the minds of men at war. Casualties Of War is now on DVD care of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Based on a true story that originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1969, Casualties Of War follows a platoon of five men through Vietnam's vicious war and the moral decisions that accompany their mission. Michael J. Fox stars as Private Ericksson, a solider who witnesses the brutality and rape of an innocent Vietnamese woman by his fellow comrades. Sean Penn is Sergeant Meserve, a cruel and malicious leader who makes the fateful decision to kidnap, rape and kill all in the name of war. As the four soldiers (including John C. Reilly, John Clark, and John Leguizamo) have their way with the woman, Ericksson realizes that he's on the periphery of wrong and right…and must decide which side to choose.
Some of us must face moments in our lives that will define not only our character but also our moral fiber. Casualties Of War is a film that tells such a story, though it makes no qualms about being completely black and white. The way that Casualties Of War is laid out the viewer is given no decision on which way to go—shades of gray are all but swept away by the performances in the film and the script. Is this a complaint? Possibly. I think that Casualties Of War might have benefited from a bit more ambiguity and less solid right or wrong. This isn't to say that the rape and murder of a woman isn't wrong (duh). What I mean is that the characters in Casualties Of War would have played better if they weren't so one sided. It's as clear as day that Sean Penn is the "bad guy" and Michael J. Fox's character is the "good guy." In the horrors of war, the unimaginable may be understandable, if not condoned.
These complaints aside, I was impressed with Casualties Of War. As some of you may know, I'm not a very big Brian De Palma fan. I watched his supernatural thriller The Fury not too long ago and was none too impressed with his cheesy style of filmmaking. Most of De Palma's other films have left a bad taste in my mouth as well: I was indifferent to Carrie, confused by Mission: Impossible and loathed Mission To Mars. Needless to say, I won't be rushing out to see any of his newest films anytime soon. This is why I was pleasantly surprised when I watched Casualties Of War. My acceptance of the film also may hinge on the fact that I think Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn are two of the best actors of their generation. Penn has continuously amazed me with stunning performances in films like Dead Man Walking, U-Turn and The Game. While his performances are often overshadowed by his personal life (this is, after all, the same guy who dated Madonna and smacked around the paparazzi), Penn still gives steely performances that have made him one of the most respected actors among his peers. Here Penn is chilling as a man pushed over the edge by death and destruction—a man who thinks that being a monster is all apart of the war. Fox is equally as compelling as Private Ericksson. By 1989, Fox had already starred in a few dramatic films (including Light Of Day and Bright Lights, Big City). Casualties Of War would pretty much mark the end of this period—after this, Fox would go back to comedy and sitcom TV, the genre he was best suited for. While Fox may not be able to illuminate his character with Penn's intensity, he still gives a moving performance as a man caught in circumstances beyond his control. The supporting cast fares well (including a nice performance by John Clark), but ultimately this is Fox and Penn's show.
The screenplay is well written and De Palma's direction is taut and professional. While the very last scene of the film feels forced (and possibly even tacked on) and some of the dialogue a bit stilted (a few of Fox's speeches are especially stiff), overall I thought Casualties Of War was a nice mix of action, drama and performances. Mr. De Palma, you deserve kudos this time around.
Casualties Of War is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. For a film dating more than ten years old, I was impressed with how good Casualties Of War looked. Columbia has done a fine job of cleaning up this print and making sure that the colors look vibrant and full while the black levels are solid and dark. There was a small amount of edge enhancement spotted in a few areas, but overall this is a very nice looking print.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese) as well as a newly created 5.1 remix. Unfortunately, this 5.1 remix is not as impressive as the new transfer. While the bulk of the dialogue, effects, and music are all clear of any distortion, there are many missed opportunities for great surround sound utilization. Helicopters, bullets, and explosions appear on screen, but only take place in the center and side speakers. I noticed hardly any fidelity in the rear speakers. This 5.1 track is passable, if a bit disappointing. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English, Spanish, Thai, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and Korean.
Casualties Of War is not a special edition, though it does include some very nice extra features on the disc. To start with there is "Ericksson's War: A Conversation With Michael J. Fox." This feature is around 19 minutes long and is basically a retrospective by Fox as he recounts the film, his feelings about the script and his experiences on location in Asia. This feature includes some behind-the-scenes stills, plus a lot of information on how Fox came into the role of Private Ericksson and his working relationship with Sean Penn (whom Fox didn't socialize with on the set to keep the performances authentic).
Next up is "The Making Of Casualties Of War." This is a newly created documentary that includes interviews with director Brian De Palma, producer Art Linson, and editor Bill Pankow. This is a very well done look at the production of the film that features many interviews as well as behind-the-scenes photos and stories. The most interesting is De Palma's recollection of dodging the Vietnam War by claiming to be part of different activist's groups and even a homosexual. Also included on this disc are five deleted scenes from the film, each one looking a bit disheveled (and one even in black and white). These scenes are interesting to watch, but are ultimately pointless and the decision to cut them was a wise one.
Finally, there are theatrical trailers for the films Casualties Of War, Birdy, and A Bridge Too Far, some filmographies on the cast and crew, plus some thin production notes on the making of the film.
A harrowing and heartfelt film, Casualties Of War should please war fans and drama fanatics alike. Though there are some problematic areas, I think that I can recommend Casualties Of War for either a purchase or rental. Columbia has done a nice job on this disc, though a more aggressive 5.1 soundtrack would have been preferred.
Casualties Of War is found innocent, as is Columbia for their work on this disc.
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Scales of Justice
• Ericksson's War: A Conversation With Michael J. Fox
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