Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone)

!! CAUTION !!

The Vietnam war has been filmed and filmed and filmed again, and yet movies about it never seem to actually be about it. In Apocalypse Now, the war is just part of a narrative stunt, a convenient event that happens to aid the story. The Deer Hunter’s interpretation — just after its deathly straightforward, excruciatingly long stagings of a wedding and a hunt — is ridiculously abstract, the danger coming not from the war at all but basically from some sadistic weirdos playing Russian Roulette games. In Coming Home, Jane Fonda is more threatening to the well-being of the characters than the war. In the wide-eyed, streamlined, war-summarizing Platoon, a lot of the danger seems to come from bugs. Here are ants crawling all over Charlie Sheen. Here they are again. Now there’s a leech on his face. The ugliness and banality of it all, right?

Given how immensely unlikable Oliver Stone is, Platoon -— still his most broadly acclaimed effort — is a far more respectable movie than one expects. But it’s still ham-fisted, manipulative, and empty-headed the way all of Stone’s movies (that I’ve seen) are. Nevertheless, except for in one extended climactic battle sequence, it remains fairly gripping most of the way… so in terms of pure technique, it scores as a solid and well-made war flick, if one marred by the continuous far-in-advance telegraphing of every event that ultimately happens, pulling out a bag of tricks we know from every other war film. (You even know which characters are going to be killed off the moment they’re introduced.) But it’s designed as more than a war film, and therein lies its failing. It’s supposed to Say Something, something of value and importance. That’s why it’s so self-satisfied in its grim attitudes, so unnatural and broad in its glimpses of good and evil on the battle front, so goddamned obvious. When Stanley Kubrick made Full Metal Jacket the same year, he focused on the experiences and inner lives of individuals. Stone isn’t interested; he tries to encapsulate the Vietnam War as a whole, to craft the definitive portrait. His vision of the war is appropriately unforgiving, but it’s also bizarrely simplistic and seems much too pat, like it’s the watered-down version of a collective on the feelings of Vietnam veterans. It’s still far less jingoistic and emptily hateful than Cimino’s film, less of an art-school pastiche than Coppola’s, but finding the medium of these two extremes results in a film that’s mostly notable for what it doesn’t do rather than anything it actually embodies.

So much in the film — even beyond its obvious pruning from Paths of Glory (its character arc is nearly identical) and Apocalypse Now — is clichéd enough to induce groaning. Even in a film from 1986, there’s something awfully shady about having to sit through this or that soon-to-be-killed soldier fawning over photographs of his girl back home. I find equally tiresome the suggestion that the overwhelming majority of the men who went to war started killing every random person they saw just for fun with no provocation whatsoever, all because of Stress or Masculity or something, and I can’t be sure how much Stone expects us to learn from this. The movie rebukes these rapid transitions but offers no familiarity with the characters to allow the audience to comprehend their flight off the handle, so it’s basically Taxi Driver in the field. Only here, Travis Bickle is two separate characters: the peaceful and logical Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) is hamhandedly mirrored by Tom Berenger’s sneering, sadistic Sgt. Barnes — while Charlie Sheen stands blankly observing it all. Elias, whose most distinctive scene involves hashish and homoerotic eye contact, of course must for maximum metaphorical power be murdered by Barnes for no reason whatsoever, and he must wave out his arms and collapse dramatically to the ground — for the Oscar reel as much as for us.

I suppose that in a way it’s somewhat believable that the soldiers would become more at risk from one another than from Vietnamese, but I’m sickened by the fact that they felt the need to allow Sheen to state this in total straightfaced, irony-free fashion: “I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days. As I’m sure Elias will be, fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called ‘possession of my soul.’ There are times since, I’ve felt like a child, born of those two fathers. But be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again. To teach to others what we know, and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.” No fucking way a human being wrote that whopper. It’s as bad as Peter Graves’ tirade at the end of It Conquered the World. What’s worse is it then fades to a disclaimer dedicating the movie to the men who fought and died in Vietnam. I’m sure they appreciate it, Oliver. Now go play with your friends.

Stone’s pretension is toned down some on this outing, I guess because he wanted to win them Oscars. (He did.) Instead of being horrendously obnoxious like The Doors and JFK, the movie is at worst just vaguely annoying. The characters simply don’t make sense and any opportunity to provide them with depth that would justify the “two fathers” routine above, a shameless exercise in screenwriting-course-within-script, is wasted. Dafoe is magnificent. Most of the other cast members are adequate. Charlie Sheen is a robot; his expression does not change for the entire two hour running time. Technically it’s all polished enough. There is a pretty stupid bit with the screen becoming black & white because the prior scene was just so intense, man. And the colors in the battle sequences — purple and green and red light-show explosions everywhere — are ludicrously campy where the use of nightmare hues in Apocalypse Now was poetic and surreal.

But aside from that, everything is basically passable. This is one of those presumptions I hate to make, but I doubt I would think so if I was in Vietnam myself; the film is so quick with easy solutions to complicated psychological and tangible issues it would probably make me rather furious. Don’t forget the astonishing accuracy, though, of Stone’s take on racism: The white guy wants to listen to Merle Haggard! But the black guy says he’d rather hear some “Motown jams”! There it is, everybody — Oliver Stone’s finger on the pulse of American culture.

[Expanded a bit from a review posted originally in 2007.]

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