While I may be putting Pauline Kael’s assertion that Casualties of War is De Palma’s finest film in suspicious context to say so, it stands as maybe the only great film by the director that I feel an unconscious crisis of conscience that makes me want to view it without an auteurist context. Of course this proposition would suit the Queen Anti-Sarrisite all too well, and what better way to go out swinging than on the side of a film whose power can be attributed to De Palma but not owned by him or his style? A film, in fact, whose central real-life tragedy—a five-man Army unit in the shit in Vietnam pop off and kidnap a young Vietnamese girl with the express purpose of raping her, to the horror of the essentially Catholic group’s resident Lutheran—reveals such turf wars as the venal egghead slapfests they are? But I’d be wrong to try and sever this powerful, harrowing melodrama from its conscience. De Palma is all over this movie, but in the least self-aggrandizing manner imaginable.
Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino seized the opportunity to make their Vietnam epics into (dazzling) self-referential endurance tests, as though they wanted to see if they could concoct obstacle courses from cranes, volatile thespians, and location shoots just to later claim, “Man, I lived it.” Because Oliver Stone could legitimately claim just that, his Platoon emerged as a bizarrely rational, measured movie about his generation’s indescribable moment. It was a triumph for Stone, but its success was also a cathartic sigh of relief for everyone who felt bad about all those legless Vets but never seemed to have any change in their pockets passing them on the street. Kubrick, of course, didn’t have to claim that he lived Vietnam because it never occurred to him to prove that he was human, and Full Metal Jacket is thereby the only ice-cold jungle film. (I mean that as a compliment.)
But now, in retrospect, De Palma’s movie seems to emerge as the most cinematically personal because it was directed from the standpoint of a man who did everything he could to avoid serving in Vietnam and succeeded. Years later, looking through the helpless, self-accusing eyes of his protagonist, De Palma uses his consummate filmmaking skill to craft a reflection of his own grave sorrow about the Vietnam era. He does so the only way he knows how. He uses his split-diopeter shots to show Michael J. Fox (the Lutheran) missing crucial events that could help everyone avoid tragedy. His malleable camera lens turns the house of rape into an amorphous domain that seems to be sinking back into the maw of a godless void. He uses the same sweeping, orchestral approach to narrative that he refined with his psychokinetic diptych, giving the fateful bridge sequence an unbearable, horrific majesty (as though Juanita Moore’s funeral in Imitation of Life were cross-indexed with George A. Romero remaking Ugetsu). Indeed, it would likely be the most difficult-to-watch sequence De Palma ever filmed even if it weren’t based on a true event.
Casualties of War strikes notes—unique in De Palma’s work—of unmitigated existential disappointment. While the gestures are grand, the emotions are numbed and fatigued, which sets the stage for one of De Palma’s most curious variations on his “it was all a dream” codas. The film begins and ends with Fox in a streetcar, and the Vietnamese girl he sees sitting on the other side while drifting in and out of sleep becomes the catalyst for the entire film’s flashback structure. When he wakes up at the end of the film and flags the girl down to give her back a scarf she left behind (another dreamlike object of déjà vu), she sees the hurt in his eyes and surmises that she reminds him of someone and that he just awoke from a bad dream. “It’s over, I think,” she says hesitantly. At first, the exorcism-like tone of the denouement feels all wrong, as though De Palma actually thought it possible to survey the wreckage of Vietnam and shrug it off by saying “Well that passed.” But the girl’s emphasis on “I think” gradually emerges in one’s memory as the nightmare counterpart to Femme Fatale‘s epigram “only in my dreams.” De Palma’s movies are all dreams. Good or ill, they are only over if you chose not to think.