Platoon (1986)

2 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” is arguably the strongest, most powerful war film to released in cinemas. I know I’m making a bold statement by saying that, seeing as “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Full Metal Jacket” are held in high regard when it comes to the genre. But as great as those films are, “Platoon” gets my vote as number-one mainly because of one important detail—this is not a war movie based on opinion. It doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong; “Platoon” doesn’t work that way. Instead, “Platoon” is all about experience. It’s the middle-ground. We see in great detail what it really meant to be serving in the Vietnam War. What happened? Why did it happen? How did it feel? Those answered questions are what really make “Platoon” into a great film. You do see what happened, you do understand why it happened (even if you don’t approve most of it), and you do know how it felt when it did happen. Vietnam vets are going to see this film as a flashback to the times they fought in the actual war; those who were born long after the war are going to be given a history lesson that they’ll never forget.

Oliver Stone is the writer and director of “Platoon,” and he makes it as somewhat of an autobiographical look at his experiences in the Vietnam War. He bases his main character upon himself from when he was an infantryman in Vietnam, and also bases his supporting characters upon those he served with in the war. Arguably, this is why “Platoon” is so strong in the way it deals with experience—it’s Stone’s experience. He went through it, he wrote about it, he made a film, and he just tells it like it is.

Charlie Sheen stars in the “Stone” role as Chris Taylor, a fresh-faced newcomer to the Vietnam War. The film begins as he first arrives after basic training and meets his fellow soldiers. Some of them respect him for not having gone through what they have, while others have him do some of the harder work (e.g. digging foxholes). But he does manage to survive a few ambushes and gain the respect of most of the infantrymen.

Two of Chris’ sergeants are Barnes (Tom Berenger), an angry, straightforward veteran who is scarred physically and emotionally and pushes his men to be as brutal as the war made him to be, and Elias (Willem Dafoe), who still remembers that his men are still human beings. Chris is unsure of which one to follow, as he tries to be as gruff and fierce as Barnes but then remembers his human side which he recognizes in Elias. And so there’s an interesting question of which one Chris will pledge his loyalty to in order to survive his experience in the war. On top of that, there’s already an hint of tension between both sergeants, and midway through the film, that tension ultimately erupts into a projected anger that splits the platoon apart.

The characterization of both sergeants is fascinating in the way they seem to represent the loss of innocence and the true casualties of war. Barnes isn’t merely an effective killer; his mind is at the point in which his human side is practically gone. War has overtaken him as it becomes a part of his existence. And yes, Elias would act decisively at times too, but never to the point where he loses his humanity. I think the sequence that makes it clear what war is about and how it affects people is the sequence in which the platoon enters a Vietnamese village and discover that the villagers are hiding supplies for the Viet Cong, and the body of one of their men is found nearby. The platoon reacts extremely, killing innocent civilians and torching the village. Barnes nearly shoots a little girl before Elias comes in to help, and another girl is being raped by some of the platoon until Chris comes to stop them. (“She’s a person, man!”)

By the time the film has ended, Chris will have been a changed man after coming into this world as an innocent, rich college dropout (who volunteered for this duty) to committing as many mindless and violent acts as Barnes.

Those who have seen news reports and read articles in the paper about such behavior have probably questioned and debated why these American men would act this way. Here

The acting is a crucial element to “Platoon’s” success. If we didn’t believe in any of these characters, the film would fall apart because it would have lost the harsh credibility. You could argue that Charlie Sheen didn’t really belong in this role, that he seems a little too clean to be in this performance. But the truth is, his character doesn’t belong in the platoon at first, and slowly but gradually he does find his way in the platoon. Sheen delivers effective work as he grows into the role of Chris Taylor.

Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe provide two great performances as opposing figures of war. They’re both intense and fierce, one probably more than the other. They’re great in this film, and so are the other cast members, which include John C. McGinley as a not-so-eager sergeant; Kevin Dillon as a scared kid who acts tougher than he really is; Francesco Quinn as Rhah; Mark Moses as Lt. Wolfe; Forest Whitaker as Big Harold; Johnny Depp as Lerner; and more.

The combat scenes add to the realism of the film, because unlike most movies about war, these scenes don’t have the distinction of being planned out. Nothing feels as if something is going to turn out in a certain way, because like real war, it’s unpredictable what will happen, such as who will live and who will die. What’s more interesting is that this movie was released at a time when Hollywood seemed to promote war as a fun shoot-em-up entertainment, such as the “Rambo” movies. After seeing “Platoon,” I think some people felt a bit differently in that there’s hardly an exaggeration that “war is hell.”

“Platoon” doesn’t care about the politics, the symbolism, or the basic conflicts of the Vietnam War. It just tells the story as an experience, like a nightmare that was based upon war flashbacks. Death surrounds these soldiers, overtaking several of them. And it really did happen. Nothing in “Platoon” seems forced in the slightest—it effectively gives us a tale of war, survival, mental state, and as Chris puts it in a voiceover narration describing the war, “Hell without reason.” Nothing is as clear as what we feel throughout “Platoon”—that alone is the main reason I think it works so well.

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