Platoon (United States, 1986)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Since the end of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, numerous motion pictures have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to capture one or more aspects of the most contentious American conflict of the 20th century. From this crop, three stand out as defining films: Francis Ford Coppola's sometimes-brilliant, occasionally disjointed Apocalypse Now, Michael Cimino's blistering The Deer Hunter, and Oliver Stone's punishing, personal Platoon. Of this trio, Stone's is the most harrowing and, consequently, the most effective. If Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter are like slaps to the face, Platoon is a punch to the gut.

Platoon was the first of three high-profile films to arrive on the scene during a nine-month period. In the near wake of Stone's feature, which arrived in theaters in December 1986, were Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (in June 1987) and John Irvin's Hamburger Hill (August 1987). Both were effective movies, but neither came close to capturing the essence of what Platoon achieved. Those who were in Vietnam have described this as a "flashback." Those who have never been there get a vivid, you-are-there depiction of those things that don't make it into the history books.

Platoon is semi-autobiographical. Stone, who served as an infantryman in Vietnam, has grafted many of his experiences into the film, and the primary characters are based on individuals Stone served with. The lead, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), represents the filmmaker. One could reasonably argue that the reason Platoon is so good is because it has such a deeply personal meaning for Stone. Consequently, his tendencies to over-direct and show off, which have marred some of his other efforts, are not in evidence here. There's no razzle-dazzle – just basic, powerful storytelling.

Platoon is not primarily a political film. The politics are all in the background. The movie isn't concerned about the rights or wrongs of being in Vietnam. Those things are abstract, and this is about the concrete: surviving to see another fight, counting down the days until a tour of duty is over, and living each moment with the Angel of Death hovering close. The Viet Cong are the enemy – not because they're Communists, but because they are shooting to kill. Platoon offers the point-of-view of the grunt, not of the officer or the strategist or the politician.

Platoon recounts the tour of duty of Chris Taylor, beginning when he arrives, fresh from basic training, and ending when he is helicoptered out after being seriously injured in a major battle. As a new face, Chris gets little respect from those who have been in the war longer than he has. When he reveals that he's an upper middle class college dropout who enlisted because he doesn't believe that only the poor should go to war, another soldier derisively calls him a "crusader." However, after surviving several ambushes and enduring a few times cleaning out the latrines, he develops bonds with his fellows. Chris' loyalty is torn between two of his sergeants: Barnes (Tom Berenger), a gruff, no-nonsense veteran who expects the same degree of homicidal brutality from his men that he himself evidences, and Elias (Willem Dafoe), a fierce fighter who has not lost sight of the fact that the men serving under him are still human beings. Early in the film, there is an undercurrent of tension between Barnes and Elias. After a frightening sequence in which Elias stops Barnes from executing a small Vietnamese child, that tension erupts into a struggle that divides the platoon in two.

Platoon illustrates, in unflinching detail, the dehumanizing power of war. Barnes is the ultimate killing machine. In his mind, atrocities are justified if they achieve and end and if the victims are collaborators with the enemy. Outside of Vietnam, he would have no existence. He would be a misfit who would make Rambo look happy and well-adjusted. Elias has retained some of his personality, but, when called upon by circumstances, he can act just as decisively as Barnes. Chris enters the story as a callow innocent, but, before the film has ended, he has lost control more than once and become just as efficient and mindless a killer as Barnes.

Platoon depicts several battles, including a massive one that takes place at night in which a frightening number of casualties are absorbed by the Americans, but the key scenes occur when Chris' platoon enters a Vietnamese village. It is here that the true nature of war becomes apparent. The men, having just found the mutilated body of one of their number, are thirsty for blood, and, when the villagers are found to be hiding weapons and food for the Viet Cong, revenge supplants justice. Several civilians are killed and the village is put to the torch. The only acts of humanity are when Elias saves the child and Chris stops a girl from being raped.

Charlie Sheen was not Stone's first choice to play Chris. However, after being turned down by Emilio Estevez (Sheen's older brother) and Kyle MacLachlan, Stone went with Sheen, who acquits himself admirably. He looks a little uncomfortable at the beginning, but quickly grows into the part. For Barnes and Elias, Stone cast against type. Tom Berenger, best recognized from The Big Chill and known for playing good-looking, likable guys, brings a palpable intensity to the physically and emotionally scarred Barnes. Barnes isn't quite a monster, but he's not entirely human, either. Willem Dafoe, whose resume included a number of killers and psychos, plays Elias as a contemplative, quasi-spiritual man who takes Chris under his wing. Other cast members include John C. McGinley in a memorable turn as a cowardly sergeant; Francesco Quinn as Rhah, one of Chris' friends; Keith David as King, one of the lucky ones who gets out alive; Forest Whitaker as Big Harold; Johnny Depp as Lerner; and Kevin Dillion as the antisocial, bloodthirsty Bunny.

Stone's approach to filming is a key to Platoon's success. The movie is not shot as a traditional war movie. Instead, Stone drops the camera into the action, capturing the chaos and confusion associated with battle. Watching Platoon, one can easily understand why up to 40% of American casualties during the war occurred as a result of "friendly fire." The night battles are lit using "natural lighting" – primarily flares – which gives the picture an authentic look and feel. Many of Stone's techniques were adopted by post-1986 war films. Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, and We Were Soldiers owe obvious debts to Platoon.

Before the movie began shooting, all of the actors had to undergo a two week "basic training" course under the supervision of military adviser Dale Dye. Stone's intention with this physically exhausting regimen was not only to give the actors a sense of what it was like to be a soldier, but to deprive them of sleep so that, when filming started, they would be burnt out and in character. Other films (most notably Saving Private Ryan) have used this "basic training" approach, but none were as ruthless in its implementation as Stone.

Following a three-month shoot on location in the Philippines, Stone had all the footage he needed. Once Platoon was in the can, the actors agreed on two things: they had just participated in a meaningful project and they hated Stone. Ultimately, that didn't stop most of them from working with him again. Sheen returned in Stone's follow-up to Platoon, Wall Street, and both Berenger and Dafoe appeared in Born on the Fourth of July.

Platoon is the first chapter in Stone's so-called "Vietnam Trilogy," which also includes Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth. The other two films, although compelling pieces of cinema, are a step down from the first. Platoon was honored by the Academy with four Oscars: Best Director, Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Picture. (Berenger and Dafoe were nominated in the Supporting Actor category, but Michael Caine took home the statuette for Hannah and Her Sisters.) This is one of those rare occasions when the best movie of the year was honored as such at the Oscar ceremony. Platoon is one of those movies that, once seen, will never be forgotten, and, at least for those who were not in Vietnam, will forever alter the way in which the war is considered.

Platoon (United States, 1986)

Ranked #48 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 1986-12-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: WAR
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1