Platoon. Oliver Stones compelling, thought provoking film about the brutal futility of the Vietnam war. Based around the Cambodian border it follows the lives of an American Infantry platoon during a year long tour of duty. The main character is Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a white, fresh faced suburban college boy who narrates his feelings through letters to his grandma and a type of acknowledging commentary.
Stone uses his personal experience to highlight the senseless nature the campaign, not so much in its political aims, more in the way that it systematically ruined the lives of the young men involved. Through dialogue and narrative explanation, attention swings between benign and often funny banter, to informed opinions about who’s fighting who for who and why.
“I just thought why should all the poor kids go to war and all the rich kids get away with it.”
“You got to be rich in the first place to think like that.”
The refreshing lack of heroism makes for a reality that could have been lost if the storyline had surrendered to the traditional Americanised film format. There’s no God save America or putrid morality plug here, Stone saves all that flag waving stuff for ‘Born On The 4th Of July’, another stunning film.
As the Platoon goes about its tour of duty, Taylor descends into a spiral of depression, exhaustion and despair whilst maturing quickly as an adult and soldier. Along the way he discovers new friends and enemies as well as whole new ways of dealing with principles, ideals and the quest for survival. The two platoon sergeants, Barnes and Elias, are played by William Defoe and Tom Berenger. Barnes is a hard control freak who will stop at nothing to get his own way, the haunting undertones in his character make his performance the most convincing and one which Berenger has never matched. Elias, the younger but no less capable, shows a sensitive understanding streak in which Taylor finds comfort and escapism.
The hostility and tension between the two forms the base of an ongoing sub plot, the closest thing the film has to a display of good and bad. The Platoon splits in two and there ensues a battle of wits that climaxes in disaster ,emotional chaos and anarchy.
The film captures the out of control, disinterested nature of the soldiers feelings with a refinement that keeps the viewer gripped with an intense feeling of sadness. The battle scenes display harrowing and graphically violent sequences in which the soldiers seem to be as confused as the viewer. You desperately want to understand unpredictable nature of the uneducated ‘Grunts’ as their disillusionment towards the war explodes with violent and murderous consequences.
One of the best scenes involves Elias’s half of the Platoon getting stoned and drunk in a homemade bunker they call the Underworld. The soundtrack is ‘Tracks Of My Tears’ by Smokey Robinson and the miracles, they dance around, arms round shoulders and form an image of romantic perfection. A cinematic moment is captured and lasts for maybe 2 or 3 seconds. That scene ties in directly with lives throughout the world as an epitomised example of comeraderie.
Another moment includes a conversation between Sgt’s Barnes and O’Niel, with only three days left to do O’Niel starts to have a bad feeling. During the daytime prep for almost definite bloodshed he has to hold back the tears as he begs Barnes to let him go.
The scene in which the Platoons injured and dead are evacuated from the forest has a stunning, almost documentary style realism to it. The costumes and set are perfection and are accompanied simply by the overpowering noise of the rotor blades slapping the air.
Many of the shots can’t have scripted and must have been grabbed on the fly and added later, two that spring to mind are the light shining throught he trees at the beginning and the choppers returning in front of a sunset.
The story line has been criticised for being weak, but I think that this supports the films subject and gives a highly believable storyline about a period of warfare that America has never really recovered. It’s true to say that the plot doesn’t extend much further than the underclass being scared and pissed off, this simply adds to the absurdity of the situation and backs up everything that we have come to understand.
Platoon is probably the best war film ever made, it does a wonderful job of tackling a sticky subject without glorifying war or indulging in patriotic flag waving. Saving Private Ryan was guilty of this. By all accounts a good film, ruined by the ridiculous beginning and end sequences pasted on to remind the masses of what the good western world fought for. Crying granddads, a good looking middle American white family and of course, the stars and stripes. How sad.
It’s generally accepted that most films are crap, entertainment churned out for the masses just like boy bands, bowling alleys and anything else that involves patronising and ripping off the poor. Jerry Bruckheimer continues to make boring and grotesque belittling films about shit, happy endings, car chases, a love affair, actress of the moment with a cool name and a cutsie child. ‘Box office smash’, ‘Blockbuster’, ‘This took so much in the first weekend’, all this adds up to a bit of leisure to be forgotten as quickly. ‘Pearl Harbour’, just how much money needs to be wasted in the pursuit of the ultimate turd?
All of the above is thankfully interspersed with the occasional moment of genius, Platoon is that moment, and Oliver Stone has every right to be proud of this masterpiece.