Tag Archives: Sean Penn

Sean Penn’s directorial masterpiece: “The Pledge” (2001)

Sean Penn’s 2001 film of the 1958 novel The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt is a portrait of a policeman’s self-destruction. It is not an action-filled thriller. It is not “about” catching or stopping a serial killer.


The man who entices and murders eight-year-old girls becomes the focus of Detective Jerry Black’s life after his official retirement from the Reno police force. We have seen and heard before that detectives have to be able to think like criminals to thwart them. We have seen and heard of more than a few breaking laws to uphold the rule of law, to destroy villages to save them, etc. Such dangers need to be regularly considered, but the policeman metamorphosing into what he (and sometimes she) is trying to eliminate is a relatively minor component of the disintegration of (ex-) Detective Black.

After the most bravura cinematic scene in the film — in which in a long-distance shot Detective Black (played by Jack Nicholson) crosses a barn covered with gobbling turkeys and tells the parents that their daughter has been murdered — a scene in which the audience cannot hear what is said, the scene justifying the title occurs. The dead girl’s mother coerces a promise from Detective Black that he will find the man who killed the girl. The mother demands that he swear this on his salvation, as she holds a cross made by her slain daughter.

This pledge is extremely serious to Swiss Calvinists (Dürrenmatt’s background). There is no indication that Detective Black believes that he has a salvation to pledge, though he reminds the police chief played by Sam Shepard that they are old enough to remember when promises meant something.

In my view, Jerry risks and loses his salvation not by making that pledge but by breaking another that is only implicit. Not wanting to give away the ending, I will return to interpreting what I consider a trinity of endings in a distinct section below.

First, though, some evaluative comments:

Whether it is his greatest performance since “Chinatown,” his greatest performance since “The Shining,” or his greatest performance since his Academy Award-winning performance in “As Good As It Gets” (his previous film), Jack Nicholson is exceptionally self-effacing getting very deep into the role of Jerry Black. That he can go through a whole movie without smirking is amazing, but only part of his accomplishment herein. Without the voice-over crutch that tells audiences what the perspective of so many jaded detectives is, Nicholson shows what Jerry Black is feeling.

In addition to Nicholson’s awe-inspiring performance are a series of intense performances in single-scene roles by Mickey Rourke(!), Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Benicio Del Toro (it could be argued that the last is in two or three scenes), and another compelling performance across a large range of emotions by Robin Penn Wright.


Personally, I would have liked there to be more about what turned Jerry Black into the person he is on his retirement day. Although it is easy to understand why he does not return to the child psychologist (played by Helen Mirren, an icon of the frustrations of catching serial killers…), it is unfortunate for Jerry Black that he did not enlist continued consultation from her.

English cinematographer Chris Menges (whose most memorable work has been in “The Mission” and “The Killing Fields”) provides some beautiful mountain and lake scenery (supposed to be Nevada, I think it is British Columbia, but the story is Swiss in origin, so who cares?). There are, perhaps, too many scenes of Jerry fishing. If so, this is the editor and director’s fault, not the cinematographer’s. However, I am not certain that these scenes and/or their length are harmful. The respites (for the audience as well as the character) arguably have a function, specifically to show that he is not completely obsessed with the killer (he is very obsessed, but not completely, you know?)

Some gimmicky camera work does not seem to me to advance the exploration of the character(s). I’m not sure if there is a technical term for the opposite of deep focus (blurry deep focus?). There are an inordinate number of shots from above, some very tight closeups, and (I think) too many lingering shots

so many fishing scenes necessary as calm, lucid interludes?

I thought there was a little too much foreshadowing, but given that a number of viewers were audibly perplexed after the screening, it is clear that what happens is opaque to some.

Composer Has Zimmer (The Lion King, As Good As It Gets, The Thin Red Line) provided rather obtrusive, sometimes obvious, but often effective music.


Late in the film it occurred to me that Jack Nicholson was back in Antonioni country. I was thinking of “The Passenger” in which he discards an old self. The photography of objects and various long shots (especially the aforementioned turkey barn one) recalled Antonioni (especially “Eclipse”). The most direct Antonioni predecessor occurred to me only later: “Blow Up.” That most commercially successful of Antonioni films was also about an obsessive attempt to figure out what happened, whether there was a crime (here, whether there is going to be another crime).

There is no doubt in my mind that Detective Black correctly identified the killer. Surely, the reason he did not show up for his rendez-vous became known to his former colleagues. But that doesn’t much matter to Jerry. At least it does not matter as much as that what he has done is very horrible, and he knows that he deserves to have lost everything by it.

I have practically no doubt that he loved both the girl and her mother. An obvious answer to Robin Wright’s final charge, “I thought you loved her,” is that he did. Human motivation is not so simple that the only two possibilities are that he loved her or he used her for bait. I think that both are true, which makes the latter more horrible. An argument could be made that he is saving not only her but some other possible target. Self-righteous policemen playing God, judging predators and taking action against them, are familiar, but not such a mixture of God and Abraham (even though he is not the biological father, I except that he has become a de jure as well as de facto father).

If I am wrong and the mother is right, what Jerry does is more horrible still, but to me the final dissolution (actually returning to and expanding upon the opening shot) only makes sense if Jerry knows that he has gambled his earthly salvation, his adopted family, to save his (quasi-)adopted daughter and her agemates. How this weighs in the equation with his pledge to the dead girl’s mother and his eternal salvation, I do not pretend to know. The original Calvinist doctrine of predestination would be a comfort in comparison to what seems the despair and annihilation of Jerry at the end.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray


Kill (at least the career of) the messenger: Fair Game


Pros: Watts and Penn

Cons: what really happened to a dedicated agent


Directed by Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”), based on Joseph C. Wilson’s memoir, The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity: A Diplomat’s Memoir, “Fair Game” is particularly timely with the  attacks of the illegitimate president on the professionals of the security agency.

“Fair Game” (2010) focuses on his office’s attempt to discredit former ambassador (to Gabon) Joseph Wilson’s New York Times revelation that the supposed Saddam Hussein Iraq’s purchase of yellowcake enhanced uranium , which was one of the rationales for invading Iraq (included in the 2003 Bush State of the Union address), not only did not happen but was preposterous. Karl Rove and Cheney’s chief-of-staff (and it is impossible to believe with Cheney’s knowledge and approval; indeed Scooter Libby later said that it was Cheney who told him that Plame worked for the CIA) sought to make the story not the administration’s knowing lies but nepotism, specifically, that Wilson was sent by his wife, Valerie Plame, who had been asked about her husband’s connections to Niger officials. Plame did not make the decision to send him to Niger, but the Cheney disinformation machine cast doubt on his challenge to the lie by Bush (and Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, et al.) while avoiding the substance of Wilson’s charge that the Cheney-Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in general, and the Niger yellowcake uranimum in particular.

I knew that the Bush administration recklessly exposed that Plame was a CIA covert operative (which is a felony under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act), but the movie showed some of the consequences: one can fairly say the blood of various people (70+) who had been cooperating with her is on the hands of Cheney, Libby, and Dick Armitage (who told Robert Novak that Plame was a CIA agent, which Rove confirmed, hence Novak’s report from “two senior administration officials”). Wilson contradicting Bush administration lies should not have made Plame “fair game,” and destroying her career was done without any consideration of fatally compromising those in the Middle East who could be linked to her. I know that the movie title is a criticism of what was done to Plame and her contacts. “Reckless Mendacity” would be an apt title for the whole run-up to the otherwise catastrophically underplanned conquest of Iraq.

Cheney (via Libby) seeking to make something of the aluminum tubes that the CIA was convinced were not part of a nuclear bomb-making program in Iraq and generally to cherry-pick and leak raw data to justify invading Iraq are also prominent in the movie. (In his testimony to the special prosecutor Cheney claimed not to recall information sought 72 times, a piece of the historical record not posed to him in his current press initiative.)

Having said that everyone knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in an Oscar acceptance speech, Penn was a natural to be cast as Wilson and Naomi Watts was convincingly dedicated to her job playing Plame. And David Andrews was convincing as the bullying Libby (Cheney and Bush played themselves; that is, appeared in archival footage).

Alas, the movie ends with Bush commuting Libby’s sentence rather than being jailed along with Cheney for their multiple crimes. (And, during the movie’s credit, the real Plame testifying to a congressional committee appears alongside closing records, showing how much Watts looks like her).


©2014, Stephen O. Murray

Atrocities and coverups: Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War”

At both ends of the 1980s  Brian De Palma produced masterpieces that not everyone liked. Well, they are so heartbreaking that one could justifiable say that no one “liked” them. In both “Blow Out” (1981) and “Casualties of War” the not especially heroic but determined male protagonist cannot save the female victim: Nancy Allen in “Blow Out”, Thuy Thu Le in “Casualties of War.” Both movies involve cover-ups, one successful, the second one ultimately not. As De Palma himself says in the making-of featurette to “Casualties of War,” the helplessness of characters to stop horror/evil is the leitmotif of his cinema.


Both movies also had career-high performances by popular actors who got their start in television series: John Travolta and Michael J. Fox.

lang book cover.jpeg

De Palma wanted to film the story by Daniel Lang when he read it in The New Yorker in 1969. De Palma only had the clout to do so after the success of “The Untouchables,” which was also after “Platoon” and “Full-Metal Jacket” and “Good Morning Vietnam” (a set from which he used) and long after it could have any effect on the US military adventure in Vietnam (, Cambodia, and Laos). The half-hour DVD making-of featurette was made in 2001, before another catastrophically ill-advised military adventure of another Texan president (De Palma took that one on in his less accomplished but certainly not uninteresting 2007 “Redacted”).

There is not the slightest doubt that De Palma (who had made sardonic anti-draft movies during the Vietnam adventure: “Greetings” in 1968 and “Hi, Mom!” in 1970) opposed the US deployment and continued (in 1989 and 2001) to consider it wrongful. The movie is not about “Should the US be/have been in Vietnam?” The answer to that is unequivocally no for De Palma, but is not at issue.

To some degree “Casualties of War: shows the coruscating effects of counterinsurgency pursued by soldiers who know nothing and care less about the local culture and society and do not speak the local language. Early on, the movie shows the buzzing easily lethal confusion that has made Sergeant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) impervious to regarding Vietnamese as human beings who may not be enemies. On nighttime patrol his platoon comes under mortar fire and Sgt. Meserve saves the life of the latest replacement cannon fodder, Pfc. Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) a married soldier with a young daughter, twice (from the same Vietcong soldier in a tunnel into which Eriksson half falls: this is the only enemy combatant in the movie with a face and none has even a line of dialogue). The next day, Meserve’s buddy, SPC 4 “Brownie” Brown (Erik King), is fatally shot while Meserve has his arm around him. Eriksson had just been detailed with Brownie and is only yards away when the ambush commences with the shot that fells Brownie.

The platoon has one night back at its base, Camp Wolf. Sgt. Meserve is furious that their passes are cancelled and he cannot go into the brothel servicing GIs as he planned. He says that he is going to requisition a girl the next day, and — with the eager participation of Corporal Thomas E. Clarke (Don Harvey) — does so. Eriksson objects and Meserve puts him on point (not only ending the conversation but increasing the danger for Eriksson).


From my introductory social psychology course once upon a time, I know that the difference between one person dissenting and two is multiplicative, not additive (it’s hard to stand up for what is right alone, while two — particularly two out of five! — can have more impact). The American tragedy of the movie (in my reckoning, less than that of the Vietnamese girl who is kidnapped, raped, and eventually knifed and shot) is that Brownie’s replacement Private Antonio Diaz (John Leguizamo), who says he is not going to rape anyone and will support Eriksson, feels that he cannot take a stand and disobey the illegal order of Sgt. Meserve (who gives him first dibs) to rape the girl.

Sgt. Meserve is quite consciously committing crimes (including, eventually ordering Diaz to kill the girl so that the crimes of kidnapping and rape will not come out), but is not totally a villain. There is one, the sadistic, authority-abusing bully Corporal Thomas E. Clarke (Don Harvey). It seems to me that Sgt. Meserve has contempt for Cpl. Clarke, though it may only be that Meserve is calculating the need to have Diaz and PFC Herbert Hatcher (John C. Reilly) on board in committing and covering up the crimes Meserve has planned and executed.


Eriksson spoke up and continued to try to protect the girl, knowing how easily his own life could be snuffed out in the field. (One of the most electrifying moments in the movie comes later when an officer attempting to discredit the story says he does not believe it, showing full awareness that US soldiers killed other US soldiers: “fragging”.)

The diminutive Fox does not posture or sermonize. He is quiet but firm in the face first of the histrionics of Sean Penn’s Meserve in the field, and then as the commanders, Lieutenant Reilly (Ving Rhames, who has a showy story of his own to tell) and Captain Hill (Dale Dye, the Vietnam veteran military advisor who also played a captain for Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and was promoted to colonel for Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July”) refuse to launch an investigation (though he does break up the platoon and sit back as other officers attempt to discredit Eriksson and his story. Maybe because I’d never seen “Family Ties” (though I had seen “Back to the Future”), I did not balk at Fox’s casting as the innocent who refuses to go along with what he knows is wrong (and a war crime). This is the performance for which Fox will be remembered 50 years from now.

Penn (who is one year older than Fox) had turned in some impressive intense performances already and now has a substantial body of work that includes two best actor Oscars (and De Palma’s “Carlito’s Way”). He was very good (though certainly not restrained!) in making Meserve a complex character. Leguizamo and Reilly were unknown at the time and Rhames had made an impression only in Paul Shrader’s all-but-unseen “Patty Hearst” (as the leader of her captors). Harvey had been in De Palma’s “The Untouchables” (and John Sayles’s ensemble “Eight Men Out”) but reached the highpoint of his career early on herein. (Berkeley graduate Thuy Thu Le did not pursue an acting career, perhaps being another Falconetti or Bjork, who suffered so vividly in one movie role that she did not want to take any others).

(Though set in Vietnam, perhaps the movie to which to compare “Casualties of War” is not “Platoon” or “Full-Metal Jacket,” but “The Accused.” Or “On the Waterfront” or “Serpico”).


De Palma was served very well, here and in other movies (The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way) by Stephen H. Burum’s cinematography. De Palma trusted Burum to capture the images he envisioned and storyboarded. Much as I adore soundtracks by Ennio Morricone (especially for Sergio Leone (including “Once Upon a Time in America” as well as the “man with no name” trilogy and “Once Upon a Time in the West”), Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, Malèna, Baaria), and Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, Burn!), his music can sometimes overwhelm scenes, and IMHO sometimes did in “Casualties.” It is certainly very effective in the suspenseful set pieces herein (and in “The Untouchables”), but swells a bit much in others (including a heavenly chorus at the very end as a Vietnamese student also played by Thuy Thu Le (but dubbed by Amy Irving) walks away in San Francisco’s Dolores Park after riding on the same streetcar (a J-Church) as Eriksson. Neither De Palma nor Morricone is invariably constrained by Good Taste. (That said, De Palma did not shoot the rape with even the slightest appeal to prurient involvement of viewers. Indeed, he mostly shot the rain-drenched face of Pvt. Eriksson instead of the rape itself.)

I don’t think the movie is perfect, and am aware that some didn’t/don’t like the casting of Michael J. Fox or the pacing or the music, while others don’t want US war crimes shown. I think that the casting of Fox (which was essential to the greenlighting of the project) was perfect in part because he is diminutive and would not be credible standing up to Sean Penn in a fight (without a weapon) and is credible in neither taking decisive action (shooting the rest of his platoon or deserting) nor doing what he knows is wrong (raping or covering up the kidnapping, rape, and murder).

I think that “Casualties of War” is a great movie, with a lot of great work (under adverse conditions, including a trestle of the railroad along the River Kwai in Thailand (yes the setting of the totally false British-constructed wooden bridge in David Lean’s meretricious, multiple-award-winning 1957 racist claptrap of a movie). The retrospects by Michael J. Fox (“Private Eriksson’s War”, 20 minutes) and Brian De Palma , producer Art Linsonand editor editor Bill Pankow (the half-hour making-of featurette), plus filmographies, trailers, and a superlative transfer make this a five-star DVD. (I’d have liked to hear from David Rabe (author of “Streamers” etc.) whom De Palma says did not like the ending, though he wrote it, but De Palma both wanted a measure of putting the traumas behind Eriksson decades later and to avoid repeating Elia Kazan’s (1972) “The Visitors” that also spun off from Lang’s reportage to an imagined backdraft.)

(The original Lang article was published as a book and  is reprinted in the Library of America’s Reporting Vietnam: 1957-1969, and was published in book form back in 1969. Follow-up for the originals of the characters is provided at http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/1989-08-30/news/there-is-yet-more-to-casualties-of-war/3/. That Meserve was acquitted of rape mystifies me, btw. He was found guilty of murder. And his real-life model had not saved Eriksson’s life.)

California Senator Hiram Johnson famously said (in 1918) that truth is the first casualty of war. In that the story of the abduction/rape/murder came out, “Casulaties of War” is more optimistic than that. Pvt. Eriksson says “This is not the Army” and with whatever reluctance, a military court ruled that murder is still murder in the field in wartime, and Eriksson (barely) survived being murdered (by Col. Clark) back on the base, and the ending of the movie is not the bleak despair with which “Blow Out” ends, but I doubt anyone would consider “Casualties of War” an upbeat movie!


©2017, Stephen O. Murray