I recently watched This Boy's Life again, having seen it and liked it the better part of a decade ago. It's the true story of a kid, Jack, who accompanies his mother as she moves around the country looking for work (at one point moving to Seattle just because that's where the next Greyhound bus is going) and eventually ends up stuck in Concrete, Washington, an isolated town in rural Skagit County, after his mother marries a guy named Dwight. Dwight, played by Robert De Niro, is one of the most loathsome characters ever to appear on screen. It's not just that he's abusive, it's the way he's abusive: kicking and punching, yes, but also throwing temper tantrums like a two-year-old, taunting at the level of a six-year-old, forcing Jack to wear a Boy Scout uniform with preposterously long sleeves and play basketball games in smooth-bottomed loafers, stealing his paper route money... he's a pathetic little worm whose stories of personal triumph invariably involve sucker-punching someone, and who seems to bully Jack and Jack's mom and his own children just because they're the only people in the world lower on the totem pole than he is.

Dwight's character arc is flat, so the drama comes mainly from what happens with Jack, played by a then-unknown Leonardo di Caprio. (The film is actually loaded with future stars. Tobey Maguire has about four lines. The cute little girl with the braids and braces and granny glasses is Eliza Dushku.) The film is almost Hegelian as Jack first tries to play ball and become the clean-cut Boy Scout Dwight demands, then rebels and becomes a juvenile delinquent, and finally settles into a synthesis of the two and basically becomes a mini-Dwight, with the same sniveling taunts and lack of prospects, before finally finding an escape route. There's also the question of whether his mother will actually do anything to protect him from Dwight, and if so, whether it'll do any good — for the fundamental dilemma is that if they decide they can't take any more of Dwight's crap, what are they going to do? where are they going to go? how are they going to live?

It's the same sort of question, to act or not to act when acting is unlikely to do any good, that lies at the heart of Casualties of War, a 1989 film that I remembered chiefly as the only film released during my lifetime that famous critic Pauline Kael actually liked. It's also a true story, about a group of five soldiers in Vietnam whose leader decides to kidnap a girl from a village as some "portable R&R"; the others don't think he's serious, but end up at least passively helping with the abduction. Eventually the time comes to rape her. Four go along. One refuses. The others threaten to kill him if he doesn't join in. He does have a gun, but so does everyone else. So what's his next move? Give in and go along? Try to save her (and likely fail to do anything but get killed himself)? Or refuse to actively take part, but do nothing to stop the rape — and, later, the murder, when they're through with her — and hope to achieve some sort of justice after the fact?

Time just named "the American soldier" as its Person of the Year, but part of what this film points out is that it's not an accident that this crime was committed by soldiers. For heaven's sake — their job is to kill, and to do so in packs. We're supposed to expect a moral center from people who've agreed to take human lives because the government said so? We're supposed to expect individual conscience from people who've been trained to function as a unit and not ask questions? Brian De Palma is no Stanley Kubrick, and Casualties of War is no Full Metal Jacket, but it doesn't flinch from the fact that, by definition, soldiers are scary. Those who rape and kill the Vietnamese girl have been shot at by enough snipers in supposedly friendly villages that they're not making distinctions anymore: they've reached the point of American Good, Vietnamese Bad, and if you happen to fall into the latter group, they have no qualms about doing anything they damn well please with you. It's an attitude that's pretty efficient for winning wars, but less helpful for winning hearts and minds in an occupation. And especially unhelpful if you want to avoid becoming a monster.

Return to the Calendar page!