We follow a green, American soldier from his first day on the ground in Vietnam until he exits, months later, a war torn veteran, circa 1968.
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Oscar Wins: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Sound; Best Film Editing.
‘Write about what you know’. Oliver Stone was a Vietnam vet and wrote the script for Platoon a full ten years before he was able to make it. When he did rally his troops he put them through a rigorous two week boot camp at their Philippines location – Tom Berenger lost 28 pounds; and most everyone hated the slave driving Stone. He railed at them and got under their skin and pushed them to the breaking point – exactly where the characters and actors needed to be. There were no showers or baths and they ate the same gunk and slept the same mind-breaking schedules that the grunts on the ground did. The results of that effort: one of the most harrowing films of the decade.
Chris (Sheen) lands in Vietnam. Within a day he finds himself in a firefight in the jungle. He’s wounded and a buddy is killed. Back at camp the troops blow off steam. The platoon divides itself into two groups – one under Sgt. Barnes (Berenger) and the other under Sgt. Elias (Dafoe). The first are hillbillies and Christians and whiskey drinkers, believers -- the second is into survival and weed and opiates. Chris gravitates to the second.
Back in the jungle they stumble on a bunker complex. The place is booby-trapped and several die – another goes missing and they find his tortured body by the river a mile or so away. When they find him the platoon is filled with sullen rage. They march to a village that has weapons and signs of enemy compliance and they lose control. It turns into a nightmare. There is mayhem and murder and the village is burnt to the ground. At this point Sgt. Elias confronts Sgt. Barnes over his cold blooded killing of a village woman. The two camps divide, sides are taken.
Barnes is threatened with court marshal and decides to eliminate his opponent in the jungle under cover of a major battle. Elias is murdered and Chris has no choice but to take up his standard.
The rest of the film is consumed with their conflict. As for the enemy – it rolls in like the rain, periodically, and the story busies itself with how these men deal with it, and each other. Of the war: there is no attempt to paper over the issue of whether it makes sense or is just – it doesn’t make sense, it’s not just.
The great Cold War that spawned any number of hot, little wars is a dim memory. What is lost to us is the cold logic of the mindset that drove the Sgt. Barnes’ of the world into the jungles to kill. He seems maniacal – a Dick Cheney with pecks – who will stop at nothing to see the mission accomplished. He is, as Chris describes him: ‘they’re Ahab’
Berenger is superb; Berenger and Dafoe were nominated for Oscars. But there are many performances that are exemplary: Keith David as ‘King’ is Oscar-worthy; Kevin Dillon as the murderous Bunny impresses; Forest Whittaker; Johnny Depp; Charlie Sheen (– this is when Charlie Sheen was Charlie Sheen).
Special mention to the actors who play villagers in the film’s most gruesome sequence – not one of them speaks English: Bernardo Manalili as the village chief; Than Rogers as his wife; and Clarisa Ortacio and Romy Sevilla – without their efforts this scene would fall flat. Instead it is completely riveting.
It’s difficult to watch an American War film today without bringing significant baggage to the theatre. Vietnam differs from Iraq in so many ways: in scale and most important for ‘the draft’. Many of the soldiers who went to Vietnam went against their will. It was prison or war or escape to Canada. Still the war, like Iraq, was a painful misadventure and American artists had to come to terms with it. Stone was the man for the job.
His cookie cutter approach at characterizing the troops, the elements that made that era take nothing from the film’s achievement. Today the Am-Wham film is suffering the fate of the Western in the late 60’s – no one wants it. (No one wanted to see minorities demonized and vilified in the middle of the civil rights movement.) The war film will shrivel and marginalize until times change. When the clock ticks and there is War Hoot worth rooting for, it may come back into vogue. When it does “Platoon” may be revisited and heralded once again for the great film that it is.
In the mean time we should expect ten years of earnest fluff: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers and Frank Capra do Disney -- because no one wants to hear the ‘blues’ when they are living it, darlin, no one.