Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Platoon (1986)

Platoon (1986)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Oliver Stone.
Starring: Charlie Sheen (Chris), Tom Berenger (Sgt. Barnes), Willem Dafoe (Sgt. Elias), Keith David (King), Mark Moses (Lt. Wolfe), Forest Whitaker (Big Harold), Francesco Quinn (Rhah), Kevin Dillon (Bunny), John C. McGinley (Sgt. O'Neill), Reggie Johnson (Junior), Corey Glover (Francis), Johnny Depp (Lerner).

American filmmakers didn’t really start making movies directly about the Vietnam War until 1978 – when Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home both came out (and subsequently dominated the Oscars between them). Those are both great films, and the following year’s Apocalypse Now, by Francis Ford Coppola, is the greatest film ever made. There were other good-to-great films made about Vietnam before Oliver Stone’s Platoon (The Killing Fields for example), but Stone’s film does something different than the rest. More than any other film about Vietnam – before or since – Platoon shows the confusing, chaotic nature of the Vietnam war, from the point of view of a grunt who is torn between patriotism and doing the right thing. Apocalypse Now is a better film than Platoon – perhaps The Deer Hunter is as well – but neither is really a realistic depiction of the day-in, day-out nature of the life of most of the soldiers who to Vietnam.

The film stars Charlie Sheen as Chris Taylor – a stand-in for Stone himself – who is a young, patriotic kid, from a good family, who drops out of college to sign-in for the Army and be sent to Vietnam. When he tells his fellow soldiers this early in the movie, they look at him like he’s insane. Why would anyone volunteer for this shit? He believed it was his duty – and like many young men is a little headstrong and cocky, and wants to prove himself in war. It doesn’t take long for him to become at least a little bit disillusioned.

The Platoon he enters is basically split into two factions. The gung-ho, anything to win, violent, old school soldiers fall in behind Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) – who has a scar on his face, isn’t afraid of anything, and isn’t above crossing many lines to get what he wants. The other group fall in behind Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) – and spend their off duty time getting high, and just want their time in Vietnam to be over. Both Barnes and Elias are skilled fighters – they’ve been in Vietnam for years at this point – but they approach their job differently. In theory, the Platoon is led by Lt. Wolfe (Mark Moses) – but he is weak and ineffectual at best, screws up more often than not, and basically allows himself to be bosses around by Barnes. A letting Barnes run things is not a good idea.

Many of the other films about Vietnam use the war as a metaphor for some larger point – that’s certainly true of films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now – but that isn’t what Stone is interested in doing in Platoon. This film is much more straight forward then that. It is a film about Taylor, who comes over a true believer, and leaves entirely changed. The story of a young man who thought he knew what he was getting into, and quickly finds out he was wrong. How at times, he wishes he could be more like Barnes – when the Platoon finds one of their own tortured and strung up by the Vietcong, Taylor is as mad as anyone, and when they soon enter the village nearby (where the Vietcong sometimes hid), he wants vengeance as much as anyone. He crosses the line with some of the villagers he finds hiding in a hole – but when he sees what Bunny (Kevin Dillon) and later Barnes does – he is horrified. He may have crossed a line – but they are so far across it they don’t even see it anymore. He develops a case of hero worship for Elias – but in the end does something that Elias probably would not have done. There’s still some Barnes in him.

And, what Stone wants to do – and succeeds brilliantly in achieving – is during the battle sequences make everything seem chaotic. There is not one shot in the movie of a Vietcong soldier that is seen clearly. They appear in shadow, if at all. The battles mainly take place at night – or else in the jungle that is always at least kind of dark. This isn’t like a WWII movie, with our side and their side dug into trenches – no is ever quite sure where anyone else is. Any movement may be one of your guys, or one of theirs. Stone places the camera right alongside the American soldiers, who never know for sure what they are shooting at, or who they are fighting.

Platoon was really the film that made Stone’s directing career. After two failed movies (Seizure and The Hand), and Salvador, which was released earlier the same year that Platoon came out, to very good reviews, but little box office (the film, in fact, barely got released at all), Platoon became a major hit (third highest grossing film of 1986 – behind only Top Gun and Crocodile Dundee according to Box Office Mojo) – and won four Oscars, for Picture, Sound, Editing and Director, for Stone himself. It is not as complex as some of Stone’s other films – but in some ways, it is the simplicity of the story, and the characters, that give Platoon its power. Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe were both nominated for Oscars for their work, and deserved it, as they do manage to give humanity to what are essentially archetypes. Sheen is the calm center of the film – and it works for him. The supporting cast includes fine work by actors like Keith David, Forrest Whitaker, Johnny Depp, John C. McGinley and Kevin Dillon. Platoon is in some ways the prototypical Vietnam War movie – or as Roger Ebert remarked that the film should have been made before the other Vietnam War films, as it provides a base for everything else to build off of. The film has earned its place on every list of the greatest war films of all time (and it always makes those lists). Perhaps the film didn’t need its voiceover narration – particularly over the final scene, which explains things a little too neatly. But the film does show, in unflinching detail, what it is that the American men who fought in Vietnam lost, in black and white terms. It is one of the best films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar – and one of the best in Stone’s career.

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