Rewatching Platoon and Casualties of War back-to-back is a contrast in cinematic style wrapping thematic continuities. They’re really quite disconcerting social mirrors that moralize without much self consciousness.
To get the purely technical elements out of the way first. Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War is clearly more in control and mannered. All those years of studying Hitchcock clearly bore fruit. I don’t know if Oliver Stone has it in himself to exercise that level of control, his eye is all kinetic, a smash and grab operation straight out of Roy Lichtenstein while DePalma is trapped and animated by a Renaissance formality.
Beyond that they present visions of Vietnam and our society that are so much of a piece with one another and today’s world that it’s striking and terrifying. They start out with the same scene and end up at the same place, young clean cut idealistic white boys arrive in Vietnam and have their world views shattered by the war. While those fresh faced white boys escape intact, the physically twisted faces of the guilty soldiers mirror their twisted souls, literally in Tom Berger’s case, all acting in Sean Penn’s.
Each features the era’s crops of young male actors, how’s this for a group shot of talent?
Platoon: Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, Forest Whitaker.
Casualties of War: Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Ving Rhames.
They even share Dale Dye as the type cast chisel faced senior officer who performed the same role in tons of movies and then turned that career around to act as military advisor in Entourage. Go figure.
To recap, in Platoon a young Charlie Sheen’s Chris is assigned to a unit where the opposing forces are Willem Dafoe’s soulful good guerrilla Sergeant Elias who bunks with a bunch of multiethnic stoners. He’s the good while Tom Berenger’s scarfaced Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes is the kill at any costs corrupt face of war. Barnes murders Elias and Chris later returns the compliment. In Casualties of War Michael J. Fox’s Eriksson is in Sean Penn’s Sgt. Tony Meserve’s unit – Penn leads his squad as they kidnap a young Vietnamese woman who is then raped and murdered by everyone except Fox. Fox leads a campaign which ultimately convicts everyone else in his unit.
The key to both is something of a false consciousness. They want to own up to guilt but they’re desperate to reframe the entire Vietnam War in terms of personal choices, to say that you can make the right moral choices within the maelstrom and come out damaged but whole. It’s all about our agency within the context of war. Charlie Sheen can kill evil, Fox can convict it. But never is there any reckoning with the greater responsibility: The politicians who got us into Vietnam somehow never come in for anything near the cinematic indictments that individual grunts get. It’s striking that so few films, books, or TV shows address the reason why all these poor soldiers are put into this pressure cooker. Politicians get raked over the coals in op eds, political journalism, and historical tomes but never in the popular media that most people consume. It’s no wonder that people get so caught up in all these false dichotomies about supporting or protesting troops.
I can’t summon a popular representation of politicians dealing with their responsibility for a war while the entire genre of war movies (and more expansively Westerns) is built on the idea of a grunt taking responsibility for their actions. It’s as if that level of understanding is just too complex for a writer or film maker to convey, too boring for an audience to enjoy. Sure – I get it – individual choices on the battlefield are inherently more dramatic and gripping but the insistence on only depicting that side of things only normalizes the gap between ultimate responsibility and this sense of personal control that dominates war movies. They never can get the randomness of destruction – individual soldiers really have very little control over any of it – nor the true agency in destruction – that politicians designed this war and continue to operate it.
And then there are all the other stereotypes like their inherent racism. Both movies feature African American characters straight out of central casting, each have a soulful experienced figure and younger characters who appear as examples of discrimination and, if this was even possible, reinforce that discrimination by virtue of playing those roles. It’s racial diversity as a tactic, presenting it as realism means that you get away with doing it. Of course there’s almost no sexism to speak of exactly because both these movies fail the Bechdel Test so spectacularly.
And then there’s the enemy. Each presents the Vietnamese as faceless masses that Just. Keeps. Coming. These are the equivalent of zombie movies except that the North Vietnamese get an occasional speaking role. Only once or twice do we see an enemy face to face, even then it’s something like “ready, aim, fire.” It’s a hallmark of war movies that the enemy is almost never humanized, but remarkable for movies like this that strive for conscientious engagement. Casualties of War has the gall of tyring to have it both ways by humanizing the Vietnamese woman at the center of it and then concludes with an Asian woman offering symbolic forgiveness to Fox back in San Francisco. Talk about one of strangest projections of power and psychology. We won even though we lost. We can be whole even though we destroyed ourselves and killed everyone else. We can accept forgiveness by imagining our enemy doing it.
I’m not solely calling out Stone and DePalma, the problems in Platoon and Casualties of War are endemic in this genre. The easy way out is to fall prey to these contradictions. Just look around: Saving Private Ryan is famous for its first 10-15 minutes because it depicts that random violence so perfectly. Then it moves back to the sense of agency and all the traps around it. Full Metal Jacket wanted to be completely anti-war and famously has become a shadow recruiting for young men obsessed with it. The only war movie that I can recall that doesn’t fall prey is Overlord because it so patiently and consciously focuses on the hard way out. Even then, it’s a war movie. The politicians and, mostly, powerful men that created these wars never come in for the moralizing treatment let alone reckoning with the destruction that they’ve wrought.