Platoon (1986)

Director: Oliver Stone

Producer: Arnold Kopelson

Writer: Oliver Stone (screenplay)

Photography: Robert Richardson

Music: Georges Delerue (feat. Samuel Barber)

Cast: Charlie Sheen, Tom Bergenger, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, John C. McGinley, Johnny Depp, Richard Edson, Kevin Dillon, Corey Glover, Reggie Johnson, Keith David, David Neidorf, Dale Dye

“They come from the end of the line, most of ’em. Towns you never heard of. … most of ’em got nothin’. They’re poor, they’re the unwanted, yet they’re fighting for our society and our freedom. It’s weird, isn’t it?”

The best insights and the best works of art come when there’s some level of authenticity behind their creation. In that case, who better to do a Vietnam picture than an actual veteran? Oliver Stone’s depiction in Platoon is brutal, emotionally draining and unapologetically anti-war, but maybe, just maybe, this is what actually went down in a war that many historians call the biggest foreign policy debacle in U.S. history.

It is, of course, a side of war that few of us want to see — body bags being unloaded as new troops arrive, U.S. soldiers torching villages, killing civilians, raping women and killing livestock, and hundreds of bodies being bulldozed into piles — but it’s a side that’s all too real (think Abu Grahib or any number of examples since).

It’s not the whole story of war by any means, but a look into the hell that war can create, presented for the strict purpose of calling it to end, and end the only way the writer-director sees possible — for war to cease altogether. It’s as if Stone, who after returning from battle had to fight another 10 years to get this script made, was saying to American audiences, “You think you know what war is. Now let me really show you what it is.”

This sort of naivety is a theme laid out from the film’s very tagline, “The first casualty of war is innocence,” beckoning viewers to lose their own through the experience of the movie. Their representative is a young All-American boy with an even more All-American name, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a privileged 20-something who arrives in Vietnam as green as the average viewer. Chris is part patriot, trying to fulfill two generations of war veterans, and part crusader, dropping out of college (like Stone) to volunteer for a war that drafted many, all for a noble ideal: “I figured why should just the poor kids go off to war and the rich kids always get away with it?”

Throughout the film, it’s this voice that narrates the story, recalling the days of the actor’s father, Martin Sheen, in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). For Charlie Sheen, who plays the full spectrum of clean GI to blood-soaked Rambo, Platoon was the launchpad for a successful career, as it was for countless other actors in the on-screen platoon — Willem Dafoe (Spiderman), Tom Berenger (Major League), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Keith David (Armageddon), Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean), John C. McGinley (Scrubs), Kevin Dillon (Entourage), Richard Edson (Do the Right Thing) and Corey Glover (the band Living Colour). The amazing supporting cast trained under military advisor Dale Dye (Saving Private Ryan) in order to act the part of combat soldiers as they trudge through the jungles of Cambodia, searching for both duty and a way out, searching for themselves.

Vying for each man’s soul is a pair of competing commanding officers, the battle-scarred hardass Sgt. Bob Barnes (Berenger), a man in the business of kicking ass and taking names, and the pot-smoking idealist Sgt. Elias Grodin (Dafoe), who says he believed in the war in ’65 but now sees it as unwinnable: “We’ve been kickin’ other people’s asses for so long, I figure it’s time we got our’s kicked.” Stone clearly presents which of the two we should favor, giving Barnes all the war crimes while giving Elias all the fun moments, including a memorable group rendition of Smoky Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears.”

But even if the set-up is a little heavy handed, the conflict is wholy effective, splitting the loyalties on screen and giving viewers a serious mediation on morality in a time of war. As Chris narrates, “Day by day, I struggle to maintain not only my strength, but my sanity. It’s all a blur. … I don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong anymore.”

While the characters may be torn, Stone as director has completely made up his mind. Late in the film when Elias and Barnes each trek through the jungle on their own, Stone depicts Elias moving from left to right (coming at things from the political left), while Barnes moves right to left (coming at things from the political right). Another time, at the start of the film, Stone cleverly cross-cuts between Sheen arriving for duty and a traumatized vet returning home. As Sheen stares at the vet with naive eyes, the vet only returns a “1,000-yard stare.”

Such techniques are indications of a director in control of his medium, something Stone continually proves throughout the film, be it a carefully planned jumpcut (i.e. from a lightbulb to sunbeams coming through the treetops), a piece of beautiful imagery (i.e. troop silohoutes against an orange sky), or an experiment in colorization (i.e. momentarily shifting to black-and-white after a napalm strike).

His knack for the dramatic is never more apparent than the film’s single-most lasting image, Dafoe on his knees, his arms outstretched to the sky, crying for help in slow motion to Samuel Barber’s heartbreaking classical piece “Adagio for Strings,” which predates Platoon by 50 years but for which it will forever be linked (thanks to continued spoofs like Frank Costanza’s chef episode of Seinfeld).

A beautifully tragic work, Platoon won the Oscar for Best Picture and Stone took Best Director. He followed with two more ‘Nam films, Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven & Earth (1993), in a career of politically-motivated films like JFK (1991), Nixon (1995) and World Trade Center (2006).

Whether you agree with his politics or not, you can easily come to the conclusion that Platoon is the apotheosis of Oliver Stone. In its final minutes, it lays out both his take on the Vietnam War and how it sculpted his mission as a filmmaker:

“We did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves, and the enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there for me, for the rest of my days. … Those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again, to teach to others what we know and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and meaning to this life.”

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