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Movie Review: Casualties Of War

By Mike Everleth ⋅ December 30, 2007

Vietnam veteran freaking out

No, this isn’t a review of the 1989 Brian De Palma fictional Vietnam war film starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn. Instead, taking the same title is a short documentary directed by Alejandro Torres that tells a different story about the same conflict.

The main casualty of Torres’ flick is Michael Xavier Steinberg. The basic premise here is that Steinberg’s stint serving in Vietnam damaged him mentally, making him unstable and antisocial, which eventually cost him a career in rock ‘n’ roll and landed him in prison for murder. The issue here, though, is whether or not that’s a spurious conclusion to make, at least from the evidence provided in the final film.

Clocking in at just about 10 minutes, we never really get to meet Steinberg in depth. His story is presented only via audio recordings made by Torres that only cover Steinberg’s life during and post-Vietnam. The film doesn’t get into his life before the war — where he grew up, what kind of childhood he had, etc. Steinberg’s tales of his wartime exploits are pretty harrowing, though. He served as a Green Beret and he talks about basically “cleansing” Vietnam, being told to go out and indiscriminately kill men, women, children and babies. Yeah, that’ll probably fuck a guy up pretty bad.

However, did all that inform his behavior after the war? Steinberg’s actions seem to indicate that he tried living his life by a certain code of honor and integrity, which he possibly acquired from the Green Berets. Steinberg may have changed his name to Harvey “Burley” Jett to try to forget his past and joined the rock band Black Oak Arkansas. Personally I’ve never heard of them, but I guess they had some sort of following by riding the Southern rock wave along with their more famous peers like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers.

Steinberg’s, or Jett’s, stint in the band didn’t last long as he didn’t like his fellow bandmates’ attitudes thinking they were “better than everybody else.” Isn’t having that attitude part of being in a rock band? Regardless, after getting into physical fights with everyone else to knock the ‘tude out of them, Steinberg settled down with his wife in California. A year later he put two bullets in her head after she served him with divorce papers and asked for all his money and property. Showing absolutely no remorse for the murder in his audio interview, Steinberg mocks his in-laws’ grief and sounds content to have served twenty years in prison rather than having given up his money.

I’m not exactly sure I can come to the same conclusion as Torres, that Steinberg would have lived a long, happy life as a rock star had he not gone to Vietnam. I’m not even really sure that Steinberg is making that conclusion. Perhaps there was more to his story that Torres was privy to that wasn’t caught on tape, but from the evidence presented in the film, personally I can’t make that leap. But, it’s an interesting premise and at least has the potential to stir up good discussion.

So, the film really only partially works for me. Steinberg is a good interview, but I didn’t like how much Torres injected himself into the film. His slow, sorrowful narration drags things down a bit and we’re never told why Torres interviewed Steinberg in the first place or how he met him or what, but it doesn’t seem to be for this film. I just kind of comes across as a Michael Moore device that doesn’t completely work without the same kind of aggressiveness and politicization of Moore’s personality. But Steinberg is a fascinating character, even with the limited exposure we’re given of him.

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