review for Casualties of War on AllMovie

Casualties of War (1989)
by Keith Phipps review

Brian De Palma's films may not be best known for their somber high-mindedness, but the style suits the director well for most of this harrowing, true-life film about the conflict in Vietnam At a time when Platoon received much credit for its supposed realism -- never mind that the characters played by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe may as well have been labeled good and bad angels -- the opening sequences of Casualties does an excellent job establishing the complex psychological landscape of the war. Its characters suffer overwhelming fear, frustration, and unrelieved sexual tension in an environment where each minute could be the last. All of which helps to contextualize their later atrocity without in the least forgiving it. Michael J. Fox received criticism for his character's unrelieved goodness, but the film needs him to avoid descending into the moral relativism of its other characters, and Fox plays the role well. He finds himself in good company, as Sean Penn's work ranks among his best and a cast full of the next decade's best character actors fills out the credits. Unfortunately, the film goes slack after Fox and company return to base, as David Rabe's script descends into pontificating, then heads to an unsatisfying finale and an even more puzzling dénouement. But a weak third act only slightly blunts the impact of an otherwise haunting, uncompromising film.