Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB. USA, 1989. Columbia Pictures Corporation. Screenplay by David Rabe, based on the book by Daniel Lang. Cinematography by Stephen H. Burum. Produced by Art Linson. Music by Ennio Morricone. Production Design by Wolf Kroeger. Costume Design by Richard Bruno. Film Editing by Bill Pankow. Golden Globe Awards 1989.
Based on a factual event reported by Daniel Lang in the New Yorker in 1969, this middling war film stars Michael J. Fox as a recruit newly arrived to Vietnam. Sent on a long range patrol with loose-cannon, fast-talking Sean Penn, Fox is horrified when he hears that Penn plans to go into a nearby village and kidnap a girl to take with them on their mission as a sex slave. Fox’s objections are ignored as the men rape the young woman numerous times before deciding that she is a liability and needs to be done away with. It’s a harrowing story that calls up a number of particularly convoluted issues: at this point in the war, with bodies piling up on all sides, who can tell these men what an enemy is, and where is the dividing line between killing in war and murder? In its treatment of the latter issue I would hardly go so far as to call the film intelligent or challenging: Fox’s character is never dubious, his biggest conflict is between his loyalty to his men and to his morals. Had director Brian De Palma made the character a man who actually had to fight more politically incorrect feelings (perhaps he was tempted to indulge himself with the girl, power is tempting to even the strongest and cleanest of us), the film would have gone somewhere close to capturing the madness and horror that, by all accounts, was Vietnam. Coming out right after the maddeningly superb Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, the film gets no points for realism; committing to some kind of phantasmagorical folly a la Apocalypse Now would make its dreamily bright photography make more sense, but De Palma rides it somewhere in the middle and, most disappointingly, creates some awkwardly unconvincing battle sequences. The film also suffers for its cast, with Penn overdoing his New Yawk accent and seeming far too desperate to be taken seriously as a “character”, while Fox has a limited range of expressions and never seems like he’s taking anything in too deeply. It’s a shame that what could have been a very memorable expression of one of the darkest chapters in America’s political history is so very forgettable (including a painfully hokey ending), though I suppose it’s worth noting that Pauline Kael and her (inexplicably glowing) review disagree.