Action/Adventure / Films / Thriller

Platoon

There are, arguably, four big movies about the Vietnam war – Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon. These are the movies which have come to define the event in public consciousness, though the big four themselves – directed by, in order, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino, Stanley Kubrick and Oliver Stone – are all very different, and take very different approaches to the war. Apocalypse Now is iconic, insane and operatic, The Deer Hunter is a character piece, Full Metal Jacket is more concerned with psychology and the shaping of men. Platoon takes a different approach, and though arguably, the weakest movie of the big four, it makes an interesting comparison point, especially when paired against Apocalypse Now. When Oliver Stone, mid-80s, proposed Platoon to studios, they were not quick to comply. Apocalypse Now, they thought, was too iconic, too powerful, and too ingrained within the audience – there was simply no room for another Vietnam war movie; the topic had been covered and it was time to move on. Stone had different intentions to Coppola, and wanted to do something different. Having served in Vietnam himself, Stone wanted to tell a soldier’s story, wanted to explore the war from the ground up with no larger cinematic concerns. Platoon, whilst not perfect, is a strong and endearing film, and rightly memorable.PlatoonThe movie follows Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) a college-drop and mirror of Oliver Stone, a man who has voluntarily pushed for active combat duty in South East Asia. This separates him from his rag-tag platoon, who are mostly poor men drafted against their will. Chris comes to experience the horrors of war, facing threats from both deep within the jungle, but also from within his own squadron, as he gradually learns to become a better soldier and find his place in the war. Alongside Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, William Dafoe, Kevin Dillion, Forest Whitaker, and a young Johnny Depp star.platoon 1986Stone fought in the war and transfers a lot of his personal experiences into Platoon. As such, this is probably the most realistic of the big four Vietnam movies, but by far the least cinematic. There’s none of the mythology of Apocalypse Now, or its sense of odyssey. Stone is usually a bolder director than he is here and Platoon is surprising in that the director seems to have no influence. There are no bold directorial strokes and you never see the strings, with cinematography and style taking a backseat to portray an accurate version of the war. The film feels haphazardly thrown together without a sense of order, built on tight, claustrophobic camerawork. The plot bounces around an aimless narrative, not episodic in the same way as Apocalypse Now, but equally as disorientating; it’s difficult for the audience to get a grasp on where they are and easy to relate to the lost soldiers on screen. Predictable hints at a narrative which develop throughout do not play out the way the audience would expect. The film feels grubby and dirty, with half the characters on the verge of collapse, with biting insects and cumbersome, overgrown trees to constantly overcome. Platoon feels heavy, like a real sweaty effort, which fits wonderfully into the humid hell of the war. Musically, ‘Adagio for Strings’ adds a great deal of pathos to the film.platoon movieThe disorientating lack of style really comes into play during the battle sequences. These come out of nowhere and are powerful in their random, hectic chaos; bullets fly everywhere, it’s difficult to tell where bullets are flying from, and even who is friend or foe. There’s a kinetic element to these scenes, with a lot of movement – in other war movies, characters take cover and shoot, static, and the audience is safe in the knowledge that the cover will hold. In Platoon, cover is destroyed, trees fall down, the enemy is everywhere and constantly circling; the American characters have to move all the time or they die, though by moving, they draw attention and fire, which also may result in death. These battles are lose/lose and utterly lacking in heroics. Whilst we never really see the Viet-Cong enemy – they are darting ghosts in the trees – we’re told repeatedly that they are human, and so when they are killed, it doesn’t feel like a victory; there are no victories in Platoon – just death, and the movie constantly reiterates that it doesn’t really matter about sides, or us and them. Violence is kept mainly in the audience’s mind, which helps too. The battle sequences are some of the most brutal and realistic ever put on screen.platoon movie The film’s central message is that war is hell, and unlike Apocalypse Now, it has nowhere to go beyond this. Creatively, it does nothing but comment on the horrors of war. But it does this so well. The attack on the village, with the American platoon on the verge of insane massacre and the utter disregard for human life, is extremely powerful, the best moment in the entire film. Stone perfectly captures the platoon’s paranoia – understandable within the circumstances, having lost friends and trust to the Viet-Cong – but also illustrates that what they’re doing is very wrong. There’s a blurring of lines and boundaries to these scenes, where legality and morality seems to collapse under the weight of war. Kevin Dillion’s character, for example, mentions being free to do whatever he wants. Stone is matter of fact here, illustrating the destructive nature of war in every sense; with the physical burning of huts, with a soldier holding a gun to a child’s head.platoonThe cast are good without ever being outstanding. Sheen gets the most attention, and whilst oddly amateurish at times, serves to nicely walk the line between morality and corruption. There’s a scene where he furiously beats an innocent civilian, which hints at a growing darkness within him, though luckily he pulls himself back before going too far. He’s in the war to find something though doesn’t know what that will be. He moves through fear to become an adequate soldier, and his narration is a nice throwback to his father in Apocalypse Now. Dafoe is likeable and fatherly in his role and Berenger is more forceful than scary. All of all cast display a sense of growing anger and lack of restraint.platoon charlie sheenSome elements do not work quite as well. The movie is overlong, and weak when the characters are out of the jungle. The good/evil divide to William Dafoe/ Tom Berenger is heavy handed, pushing for a ‘from within’ conflict which the film constantly explains as a theme, without ever providing enough evidence to justify it. That said, the resolution to the Dafoe/Berenger plot is shocking and powerful. The film, with its more grounded and grittier portrayal of the war, is more realistic than the other big four Vietnam movies – but that doesn’t make it as good. It’s a different approach which works well for the material, but can’t compete with Coppola’s insanity or set-pieces, and there is nothing here as well-put together as Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter, or that infamous breaking point in Full Metal Jacket – even the climatic sniper fight of Kubrick’s film outshines everything by Stone here. But taken on a simple, non-cinematic level, Platoon’s point remains strong – the war was bad, people died, here are some of them – and works to summarise the Vietnam war. It’s a watchable and strong little movie, which does what it sets out to do.

4/5

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One thought on “Platoon

  1. Pingback: Full Metal Jacket | Some Films and Stuff

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