How melodramatically directed, by Brian DePalma, Casualties of War (1989) is!–so much so that the film almost fails. As it is, it is neither quite a failure nor a success; it’s just worth seeing.
Based on a true story about a war crime—the rape and murder of a girl—during the Vietnam War, it has a hero in Michael J. Fox but a very low view of human nature. It does what author John Irving once said the novels of Kurt Vonnegut do: It makes us wish we were more virtuous. It makes us wish the world made greater moral sense, that human nature wasn’t so filthy. The screenplay by David Rabe is earnest and scintillating. Consider: the opportunity to rape a Vietnamese girl prompts Sean Penn’s Sergeant Meserve to laughingly praise life in the army, to which Michael J. Fox responds despairingly, ‘This ain’t the army, Sarge. . . This ain’t the army.” The army, he knows, is honorable, the war crime despicable.