Platoon (1986)


(director/writer: Oliver Stone; cinematographer: Robert Richardson. editor: Claire Simpson; cast: Tom Berenger (Sgt. Barnes), Willem Dafoe (Sgt. Elias), Charlie Sheen (Chris Taylor), Forest Whitaker (Big Harold), Francesco Quinn (Rhah), John C. McGinley (Sgt. O’Neill), Richard Edson (Sal), Kevin Dillon (Bunny), Keith David (King), Mark Moses (Lieutenant Wolfe), Reggie Johnson (Junior), Bob Orwig (Gardner), Dale Dye (Capt. Harris); Runtime: 120; Hemdale; 1986)
“Oliver Stone’s impression of the Vietnam War.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Oliver Stone’s impression of the Vietnam War, taken from when he observed it first-hand as a grunt. He uses an innocent, middle-class, college drop-out, who volunteers to join an infantry unit for patriotic reasons, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), to be his alter ego. He is the narrator and consummate letter writer to his grandmother, which allows us to hear his personal reactions to what is happening. It is through his eyes that we see the savagery of the war. It is a film that should satisfy the protesters of the war for its depiction of it as being without merit, but it also should satisfy those who are entertained by the blood and gore action scenes. It portends to be a film about the real war in Vietnam and not someone’s metaphor for the war.

The first thing Taylor sees as his transport plane lands in Vietnam in 1967, are all the body bags and the disheartened looks of the soldiers leaving to go back home. His unit will be somewhere near the Cambodian border where just existing in the jungle’s stifling humidity with all the snakes and bugs, is difficult enough. Taylor is immediately sorry he joined and doesn’t think he will make it through his year’s tour of duty.

On patrol, the stillness of this alien place is disturbing even if it is visually beautiful. The men make their way through the dense bush country on forced marches in the oppressive heat and then spend sleepless nights, trying to avoid an ambush. No one cares if the new men live or die. No one tells them what to do. If they survive, it will be mostly because of luck. Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) believes in the war. He believes he represents reality and is a defender of the system. He thinks, once the system breaks down we all break down. He is hard-nosed and combat-wise, the most experienced fighter in the company, the one advising the commanding officer what to do. But while being a great warrior, he has also lost his compassion for people. The company commander, Lieutenant Wolfe (Mark Moses), is a college grad, inexperienced in battle, trying to do the best he can, but not able to connect with the grunts under him or earn the respect of his sergeants. Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) is the other experienced leader, called a crusader by Barnes. He’s become a pothead since being in Vietnam. He once believed in the war, but doesn’t now. He realizes that the purpose of the war is not clear, that it is inevitable the Americans will lose. He cares now only about the men and has a loyal following, as the men get split in following either sergeant’s leadership. Taylor will side with Elias and joins him in his escape from reality. In “Platoon,” Vietnam becomes like a microcosm of the way Americans back home view the war.

Taylor’s baptism under fire occurs at night when his unit sets a trap for the Viet Cong. In an instant trip-wired mines detonate, and all hell breaks loose. Taylor survives with a minor scratch. He is falsely blamed for sleeping through his watch on guard duty. It was actually the disgruntled Junior (Johnson) who went back to sleep when Taylor woke him for duty. Taylor’s only blunder was that he froze when he saw the Viet Cong and couldn’t fire at them. As a result a few men are casualties, including some new recruits.

Taylor joins Elias’ drug smoking rock ‘n’ roll clique and smokes weed for the first-time. When the clique members question him they are bewildered as to why he is there, as he seems to be the only rich kid among them; they consist of high school drop-outs, the unemployed, and the poor. They are the bottom of the barrel in American society, as the educated found ways of avoiding the unpopular war. There also is a split along racial lines, as the blacks and whites mainly stay in their own groups. Elias, in a drugged state, tells the very high Taylor, now that you smoked, “The worm has turned for you.”

On the next mission they come across Viet Cong tunnels, which are booby-trapped. A few of the soldiers are killed and one of them has been tied to a tree with his throat cut. The company comes to a nearby village, angered and ready for revenge. These scenes are masterfully done by Stone as it is a reminder of My Lai, although it doesn’t turn into such a disastrous outcome. It is shown from the soldier’s perspective, as it grippingly tells how war dehumanizes one and survival becomes a basic instinct. In the village, the men are suspicious that there are Viet Cong forces being sheltered by them. Some act brutally. Some do what is ethical. Some just want to make sure they don’t overlook the danger they are in and act cautiously. But since the men are in a dangerous situation, it is hard to determine what is really the correct thing to do, except there is no excuse for the excessive cruelty shown by some. There is the horrible incident where a redneck soldier, Bunny (Dillon), who in an odd way enjoys being in Vietnam and feels free here because no one tells him what to do, is unchecked by Barnes. He smashes the head open of a Vietnamese with his rifle butt, as he assumes that he’s an enemy ‘gook.’ Barnes’s men having arrived first use the excuse of finding some weapons to begin intimidating the villagers and killing their livestock; and, Barnes, goes so far as killing an old woman. Elias’ arrival on the scene prevents a My Lai, as he tells Barnes of his intention to bring him up for a court-martial. The tense situation is temporarily handled by Capt. Harris (Dale Dye), who promises a full investigation back at the base camp but tells everyone that they’re still on the front-line and have to work together.

The enemy in battle appear like shadowy figures–faceless objects of the war.

The object for the ordinary infantry soldier is just counting the days when he goes home. No one talks about why they are fighting. But it is survival that mainly interests the men, and they will choose which is the way they want to fight for survival. The ones who follow Barnes think he is invincible; he can’t die, and that by following him they will come out of the war alive. For some of the others, they will do anything they can to make it out of here…even if it means they smoke weed until everything seems unreal. All that counts for them is to get home alive. But one thing is certain, every infantryman lost his innocence in the war.

Platoon exploits the horrors of war in a moving way, as it’s told from the soldier’s point of view. It is one of the better Vietnam War films, made by someone who knows what the soldier faced and is able to communicate this. Taylor summarizes the director’s view by saying in a voiceover: “Looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves — and the enemy was within us.” The director’s major fault was that he couldn’t resist spoon feeding the audience his opinions, as he was not able to rely completely on the visual images to do the job.