Saturday, November 26, 2011

Platoon

A long time ago, Charlie Sheen was once considered a promising young actor with serious potential. After all, his first starring roles were two of Oliver Stone's most highly acclaimed films, Platoon and Wall Street. Watching Platoon, it's amazing to consider how clean-cut he once was compared to the tabloid creature he's become, but it's probably more impressive to see just how well the movie has held up.

Released in 1986, Platoon was Stone's first masterpiece, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and director and being nominated for a host of others (including best supporting actor for Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe). More significantly, it entered American culture as the definitive depiction of ground combat in Vietnam. While there have been a number of films before and since this film about the Vietnam War (many great in their own right), Platoon is widely regarded as the first to show the war on the ground level, at the nitty-gritty, mud-soaked viewpoint. Stone, not one to shy away from political statements and polemic arguments, refrains from making doing so here, content to show us what it was like. The result is one of the greatest films ever made.

In 1968, Private Chris Taylor (Sheen) arrives in Vietnam to serve a tour duty. A middle-class college drop-out who enlisted, he's out out of place with the various members of his unit, most of them working-class poor who were drafted. Life in Vietnam is brutal and miserable, whether in combat or marching through the jungle. After a while, Chris finds himself caught between two sergeants: Barnes (Berenger), a scarred psychotic with no compassion, and Elias (Dafoe), who's trying to hold on to his humanity. After an incident in a village, the platoon becomes divided between the two men and begins to fall apart.

World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle famously liked depicting the "worm's eye view" in his articles. Had he survived that war to see Platoon, Pyle might have recognized this approach by Stone. War is no adventure. The marches are long and exhausting, the loads heavy and painful, fire ants crawl on your neck, leaves and brush cut as you walk by, water contains malaria, and there never seems to be any end or goal in mind. Just walk around until the enemy is found.

The combat scenes, while not as gory as Saving Private Ryan and other later war films, are brutal, violent, intense, and chaotic. Instead of showing the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese, Stone reveals them in shadows and half-seen glimpses. There's no front line or reserve. Death can come from anywhere. We're reminded of this when one man goes missing and is later found tied up with his throat cut. Meanwhile, booby traps pick their numbers off further. Instead of a band of brothers unified by a common cause, the men of Chris's platoon are scared, angry, drugged-out, confused, and/or divided amongst themselves.

Acting-wise, a lot of other familiar faces turn up in small roles: John C. McGinley, Kevin Dillon, Keith David, Johnny Depp, and Forest Whitaker. There's no weak link. While Sheen is good as the rookie gradually absorbed by the insanity around him, it is Berenger and Dafoe who dominate the screen. Berenger is terrifying, a cold-blooded killer who will do whatever it takes. Dafoe, in a quasi-spiritual role, seeks to protect decency and survive.

Chris is initially drawn to Barnes' straightforward, no-time-for-bull attitude but is eventually converted over to Elias' dignity. In narration, Chris describes himself as being "born of those fathers" who fought for the possession of his soul. Curiously, Stone would transcribe a similar conflict to the corporate business world of Wall Street with the character of Bud Fox (also played by Sheen) torn between the values of his working-class, union father and the riches and excesses of the slick tycoon Gordon Gecko.

Stone himself was a Vietnam vet who dropped out of college to enlist, and this is without a doubt his most personal film. He has no agenda other than to illustrate how he remembers the war. It's also, I feel, his greatest achievement.

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