Michael J. Fox did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Private Max Eriksson in Casualties of War.
Michael J. Fox as an actor is probably best known for his more lighthearted work on television and in films. Of course this in no way stopped him from giving a great performance as Marty McFly in Back to the Future, but he was not exactly viewed as a dramatic actor. Fox perhaps attempted very briefly to somewhat change this at the end of the 80's with Bright Lights Big City where he played a drug addled writer, and in this film. Fox plays a Private who has just come to Vietnam in the opening scenes of the film. Not unlike the protagonist played by Charlie Sheen in Platoon his baptism by fire occurs rather swiftly as he is gets caught in a fire fight. Fox is very good in the scene in just creating the visceral intensity of the moment as Max has to take violent action to save his life. During the fight Max at one point is caught in an enemy tunnel but is saved at the last moment by a young though battle hardened Sergeant named Tony Meserve played by Sean Penn. Tony seems to sort of take the new recruit under his wing in the proceeding days after that event.
Fox is very good in these early scenes as he shows Max perhaps becoming more like the Sergeant as there becomes a growing callousness, and almost an insanity as he reacts to the attacks from the Vietcong. Fox in these scenes portrays perhaps how decent man like Max could perhaps become like the Sergeant as he captures the way the danger of their surrounding seem to take themselves to almost a different plain of thought. Fox gradually exudes similair attributes to what we see in the Sergeant, although it should be noted that Fox does this in a far more convincing fashion than Penn's over the top work. Fox makes it believable though that Max does not immediately seem to believe the strange idea proposed by the Sergeant. The idea being that their squad should kidnap a local woman to be a sex slave for the squad since they were forced to go on without relief. Fox captures the situation for Max incredibly well because he shows how Max at first is unable to do anything about it since he's still quite sure its just a sick joke by the Sergeant that's just a part of the insanity, and the Sergeant will not actually go through with the plan.
The Sergeant though does begin his plan and Fox is terrific in displaying the sheer disbelief in Max as he can't believe that this is all really happening. The squad goes through with the kidnapping and when they set up the camp for the night it becomes obvious that the Sergeant will soon have the entire squad rape the woman. Although one other man has reservations Max ends up being the only one who will actually stand up to the Sergeant. Fox is great in this scene because he actually does not necessarily make Max this larger than life figure of virtue. Fox rather portrays him very simply as a man who will not do something he knows is absolutely wrong. The confrontation scene is an outstanding moment for Fox because he portrays a terrible fear in Max as he attempts to stand up to Sergeant. This becomes especially powerful because Fox conveys the difficultly and considerable effort it takes for Max to be able to stand up to the four men. Fox shows Max looking for some help from any of the men as well as that the stare of all four is horrible but that Max's beneath it all simply has his simple conviction that gives him the strength to stand up to them.
The men do proceed with the rape since no matter what if Max interfered it would result in his death either immediately or soon afterwards. The Sergeant instead forces him to take guard duty away from the camp while they commit their heinous act. The nightmare continues for Max though since it becomes evident that the men are not done and plan to murder her in order to destroy the evidence of their crimes. Fox takes Max out of the state he had been growing into as he sees that their actions of the moment very much do have meaning. Fox's work in the proceeding scenes is essential in creating the horror of the scenes. Where the other men have little to no remorse for their actions Max is forced to witness it all with only the faintest hope of trying to stop the murder of the woman. Fox expresses the terrible tension within Max as he simply does not know what to do since if he takes the woman himself he'll be a deserter, but also can stop all four of the men. Fox creates this fierce unease and confusion that overwhelms Max as he tries his best to do something. Every facet of savagery is made the more palatable by Fox's honest reactions as Max is forced to watch the woman's brutal murder.
After they return though Max ignores the other men's threats and goes to report their crime as soon as possible. Unfortunately the commanders have little concern for the actions of the men, and attempt to dissuade Max from going any further with his report. Fox again finds so much power in creating the disgust of just a normal man who cannot believe the callous uncaring nature of the chain of command. Fox does so much in just Max's silent reaction at the two commanders attitude and portrays the growing revulsion in Max. Fox builds this to one scene where Max confronts the rest of the squad after at least one of them has made an attempt on his life. Fox is outstanding in delivering just the genuine contempt in every word as Max tells them not to kill him since no one cares anyways. The despondent passion that Fox brings is tremendous because it all comes from not a great man but just a good man who knows a wrong has been committed. Fox though is at his most heartbreaking though after he shows that Max has given up on finding an real justice and just casually tells another soldier about the crime. Every word of Fox's performance seems haunted by the death and we see that Max can never forget the life that was lost. This is a marvelous performance by Michael J. Fox as he creates a reserved yet such a poignant portrait of one decent man living through an unforgivable atrocity.