Platoon (1986)

Directed by Oliver Stone

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Platoon is insane.

This is a Vietnam War film in which most of the fighting stays within the platoon.  Our main character is Chris (Charlie Sheen), a mostly green soldier who will end the movie by shooting one of his commanding officers.  And he’s never not the hero.

The story concerns Chris’ platoon, and we learn a lot about the unwritten rules and ethics of the soldiers through awkward voice over Chris gives us through letters he is supposedly writing to his grandmother.  Chris is educated and more than a little naive.  He volunteered for the army while everyone around him was drafted.  They can’t understand why he would willingly agree to all this, and within only twenty or so minutes of the film, Chris wonders this too.

When we meet Chris he is already deployed to Vietnam, and almost immediately we see how out of his element he is.  Chris can barely tolerate the weather, the bugs, etc. and pretty soon he finds himself in the middle of a fight between two of his commanding officers.

One of them, Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) is the good guy, and other, Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) is the bad guy.  There’s more nuance to it than that, but this is what it boils down to.  Midway through the film Elias is killed by one of their own men, a rotten little man who is tired of being picked on.  By the end of the film Chris will shoot and kill Barnes after an intense battle the night before in which Barnes nearly kills Chris.

Their are Vietnam soldiers out there trying to kill the U.S. soldiers, but they’re hardly ever seen.  Most of the time is spent among the soldiers in combat, partying at their base and then setting ablaze a poor farming village.  The U.S. troops are the monsters, in this case, and I think Platoon is some kind of meditation that tries to figure out where their madness comes from.

Oliver Stone is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and he would go on to make another, I’d argue better, war movie three years later called Born on the Fourth of July.  You know that this material is personal to him, and the focus on the splintering of the platoon must serve as a greater metaphor for the war as a whole.  The way the group of soldiers fight with each other reflects as well what it must have been like stateside during the war.  No one knew what they were trying to do, and this lack of purpose, to some extent, tore the group apart.

The more inspiring war movies, mostly about World War II, concern heroic soldiers on a dangerous but honorable mission.  They have purpose, and they can use guiding light as a way to look past all the horrors of war.  At least, that’s how some movies present it.  In Platoon, though, all the characters are trying to do is survive, and even then they are doing a poor job of it.

Soldiers are picked off slowly throughout the movie, but with no sense of the light at the end of the tunnel, the platoon begins to turn on itself.  It’s as if the brutality implanted in them for battle has taken over.  They are trained to do one thing, but then there isn’t much for them to do so they turn on each other and on the innocents.

 

The platoon is filled with an ensemble cast of recognizable or memorable faces.  Kevin Dillon plays one particularly aggressive young man who beats a disabled man to death for no reason and feels pride for it.  Mark Moses plays the pushed around Lieutenant Wolfe who complains that he’s not respected enough and ends up shooting his sergeant.  In one scene at the basecamp, Wolfe walks around with his old high school wrestling t-shirt, a small costume choice but which seems to speak volumes.  Like the Kevin Dillon character, he’s really just a kid, one who probably boasts about the glory days of high school and believes the sensibilities which benefitted him then must surely do so in battle.

These soldiers aren’t prepared for war, in other words.  They’re thrown into the jungle and must learn to survive.  Chris goes from a timid young kid to a mad, assertive young man.  He figures out how to survive, but part of him dies in the process.  What I found strange was that Stone offered some hope at the end of the movie that Chris would be able to leave the war with some semblance of his humanity while everyone else had lost theirs.

Platoon argues against war and shows just how disturbingly violent it can all be.  He presents characters who either die literally or die figuratively in the war and are then reborn as something more monstrous.  Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket showed something similar but with, I’d argue, much better results.

Kubrick’s 1987 film is unrelenting in its depiction of just how much his characters lose through the war.  The first half of the film concerns their training at boot camp, and the second half of the film jumps forwards months so that we can see what’s become of the mostly innocent soldiers.  In the span of that one time jump, they’ve changed almost completely.  Gone is the shyness and in its place comes some kind of aggressive insanity.  They all die and are reborn.

Maybe it’s because Stone lived through all this that he can’t let it consume his main character.  Chris’ descent into madness (he does kill his sergeant after all), shows just what war does to a man, but his escape from the jungle offers hope that there is something at the end of the tunnel.  Maybe it’s just because Stone himself made it back, and Chris’ emotional arc reflects his own at this time in his life.

Up Next: The Big Red One (1980), Morvern Callar (2002), Spartacus (1960)

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