PLATOON (1986)

  • Director: Oliver Stone
  • Writer: Oliver Stone
  • Starring: Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, Reggie Johnson, Mark Moses, Corey Glover, Tony Todd, and Johnny Depp
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#87), 4 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Oliver Stone, Best Film Editing, Best Sound), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor – Tom Berenger, Best Supporting Actor – Willem Dafoe, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on AMC Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Vietnam War movies are not my wheelhouse, though there are a large number beloved by critics. Apocalypse Now may be the exception, but that may be at least partially because it is the Vietnam movie that’s the least about the actual war. The war is just the background for all the other weird things that movie is doing. Platoon, on the other hand, is perhaps the most realistic of Vietnam War movies, and pretty much the only major one made by someone who was actually there. Like Charlie Sheen’s character in the movie, Oliver Stone really did drop out of college and specifically request to serve in the infantry in Vietnam. It has, therefore, developed something of a reputation as the movie that most accurately portrays what the actual experience of serving in the war would have been like, for whatever that’s worth.

It is interesting, then, that the movie’s plot is perhaps best described more as an elaborate… metaphor? Allegory? Fight between good and evil? Tom Berenger plays Barnes, who represents the dark side of the war, while Willem Dafoe plays the more idealistic Elias, who represents how the military would like to think of itself, basically. Between them, the soul of Sheen’s character, and the platoon as a whole, is in the balance. In the meantime there are a lot of apparently fairly realistic battle sequences, centering around the New Year’s period of 1968 that saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

In the name of that realism, Platoon is a very violent and dark movie, in which, for example, Kevin Dillon’s character beats a mentally disabled man to death, or another guy gets his arm blown off by a booby trap on-screen. Charlie Sheen ends the movie literally on top of a pile of bodies. It is also the movie that can be credited with creating a modern trend in the production of military movies, where the cast goes through boot camp together and spends the filming not just acting like they’re soldiers on camera but living that way 24/7. Your mileage may vary, as they say, as to whether this is a weird Hollywood affectation or actually something that brings a different quality to movies. Dale Dye trained the actors for this movie (and also appears in a small role as the general who keeps yelling into his early portable phone), and has gone on to a long career as a consultant for basically every big military movie since (for example, Saving Private Ryan).

Stone is an interesting figure, an early protege of New Hollywood (Martin Scorsese was his film professor at college, apparently) who later kind of went down a conspiracy rabbit hole, which led to a movie most people seem to like (JFK) and a bunch of more recent controversies when people generally have realized he was serious. Whatever his other issues, Stone has shown an ability over the years to direct an exciting, interesting movie. After first coming to prominence with Midnight Express, he went on to direct a trilogy of movies about different aspects of Vietnam: Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July (in which Tom Cruise plays a disabled veteran returning to the U.S. and becoming an antiwar activist), and Heaven and Earth (about a Vietnamese refugee traveling to America). As time has gone on and he has entered into different themes and areas for his movies, an Oliver Stone movie has become less of an event. I would say that I am a bit of an apologist for at least some of his later work, like Alexander or Any Given Sunday, even as he personally has gone further off the rails over the years.

Anyway, I think Platoon is a very high quality version of what it is, and I can respect it without loving it or needing to watch it frequently. Unlike many other war movies, it is, in the end, decidedly anti-war. The year following the movie’s release, its success inspired a tie-in shoot-em-up video game. That would not be so unusual for its era, except that the idea of a video game where the object is to shoot as many people as possible completely misses the point of this movie. I would say its impossible to watch this movie and come away with any conclusion other than that Berenger’s scar-faced Staff Sergeant Barnes is a villain, but I also get the feeling that many people over the years have, in fact, done just that.

Even if not your cup of tea, Platoon has a very good cast (in addition to the three “leads” it also includes Keith David, Tony Todd, John McGinley, Forest Whitaker, and even a very young Johnny Depp) and a compelling story. It received wide-ranging acclaim at the time, but perhaps more importantly it has gained a reputation over the years as the Vietnam movie that holds up as an actual record of that war. As such is worth watching once for many movie fans.

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