- Vancouver, British Columbia - In November of 1966, the Vietnam War was in full swing and the desperation of the scenario was weighing heavily on both sides. Atrocities were being committed but the war machine would not be denied until the early 1970s. Of all the terrible stories to emerge would be a piece by Daniel Lang first published in the New Yorker magazine in 1969, based on true events from that November.
As I started to watch this film, I was expecting just another Vietnam movie. I dig them, don’t get me wrong – I really liked Full Metal Jacket – but I went in thinking I knew what to expect. I was wrong, shocked, and horrified.
Michael J. Fox plays Eriksson, a private in a squad led by Sgt. Meserve (Sean Penn), a charismatic but weary leader. After an ambush in a supposedly friendly village where squad mate SPC4 Brown is mortally wounded, the squad is demoralized. Intent on heading into town on leave for recreation (and sexual) activity, the squad is further angered when they are informed that they have been denied leave. Meserve briefs the squad on their next mission, but includes an addendum of his own: they will proceed to a nearby village and kidnap a girl to use sexually during the next few days.
Eriksson and the other squad members think he’s joking, but after Meserve and mentally unhinged Corporal Clarke (Don Harvey) successfully abduct a teen farm girl, the squad becomes keen on using her for their own pleasures, sadistic or otherwise. Eriksson becomes increasingly distressed, and when Meserve insists that he partake in abusing her, he adamantly refuses. From then on, Eriksson must choose between loyalty to his unit or what his moral code tells him is right.
Sean Penn Month: Firstly, I have to hand it to Penn. It would be too easy to portray Meserve as a whacked out nutcase who you pray someone will slice up like Swiss cheese. But Penn portrays him in a complicated manner; he cares about his squad and wants what’s best for them. He won’t leave a man behind. And ultimately, there’s the sadness behind his eyes. Even when he’s furious, there’s the prevalent misery in his eyes. He’s so close to ending his tour, but his soul is already lost. He has encapsulated the madness around him, and a small part of him despairs. In this way, I’m reminded of “Heart of Darkness” (or Apocalypse Now, whichever you’d like). What was once a normal or even heroic man has been overtaken by despicable situations, turning him into a despicable man. He knows he’s a character on stage, but he is going to play his role anyway. Now I will admit that some of his facial expressions, especially near the beginning, were a little silly. But there was a line near the end that helped crystallize that for me: Captain Hill derides the men’s actions, but notes how young they are. He mentions that Meserve is only 20. So what I think is that any posturing and machismo put on by Meserve, especially around the clearly older Brown, is an act as he tries to assert the power that’s been handed to him. And it’s too much for a kid that age.
Seeing Michael J. Fox in a role like this is a new thing for me. I’ve only really seen him in comedic or lighthearted roles, but in the end I agreed with the casting. The Vietnam War wasn’t about getting big hulking men into the battlefield, but every American, and most weren’t suited for it. Fox in this regard is a man who’s out of place, and represents how Americans really were in the war. And he’s able to pull off some pretty powerful moments.
Thuy Thu Le was about 15 when this film was made, and that is astounding to me. She conveys such emotion and delivers astoundingly powerful scenes. There are so many moments when her ordeal will bring tears to your eyes, and you hope with all you have that her trials are erased. She is more than just a victim though; she’s a symbol of the corruption of these men and that’s a huge weight on this movie. If they had cast a woman who was little more than a scream machine with a flat affect, the energy amongst the actors would be drastically different. She charges them, and in particular her exchanges with Fox are gut-wrenching, even though they can’t understand each other.
As I was watching the film, I saw an unfortunately ugly mug on screen and I stroked my chin thoughtfully. Was that really John C. Reilly? Nah, this dude’s way too fit to be – wait, actually yes it is John C. Reilly. From what I read, he replaced Stephen Baldwin, who wasn’t taken the role in a serious enough direction. Wow, really?? That’s why no one likes you Stephen Baldwin. Reilly services the part well enough, with enough naivety you’d expect from someone new to the field, but enough of a sinister edge to make his actions believable.
Also making his big screen debut was John Leguizamo. He comes in as Brown’s replacement, and I just wanted to hit him. He’s not down with the whole sex slave idea, but when Eriksson makes his stand, he’s too much of a pussy to stand up for himself and he follows Meserve’s lead. I kind of saw it coming, but I still wanted to slug the guy.
I want to make mention of De Palma’s wonderful directing. So many excellent shots to choose from, but the best might have been at the beginning when Eriksson gets stuck in the ground, with his feet dangling in a tunnel. De Palma had a plateau constructed like an ant farm with the jungle on top and the tunnel underneath. He could then pan the camera downwards to capture the various actions as they were happening simultaneously.
For that matter, what also stood out to me were the scenes where the girl was being raped. De Palma left it pulled back, but would cut to a close up of Eriksson’s eyes framed in rain, and right there you see a man changed forever.
I also want to acknowledge the hauntingly beautiful score by Ennio Morricone. It combines vocal, pan flute, and traditional orchestra to create poignant emotions the whole way through the film. I felt like my heart was being led on a string along a roller coaster ride. It was pretty intense.
The movie is only moderately graphic, but the content is exceptionally disturbing. There is some redemption and relief at the end, but although the phrase “war is hell” is common vernacular, stories like this must be told so we can remember the demons.
Rating: 5/5 Sour Grapes