I think its use of “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber is one of the reasons I stayed away from seeing “Platoon” for so long. It was and still is one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard although it would later be eclipsed by the more emotionally devastating “Symphony No. 3” (subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) by Henryk Górecki which Peter Weir used to powerful effect in “Fearless.” Plus, the way the violence in “Platoon” was described to me by friends (like when a soldier gets his arms blown off by a bomb) filled my mind with thoughts I felt I had no business thinking about back in.
It took me buying the 25th anniversary edition of “Platoon” to finally sit down and watch it. I hadn’t even seen the movie yet, and here I am buying it on Blu-ray for a cool $11.99 at Costco! By then I had seen many Oliver Stone movies like “Born On The Fourth Of July,” “JFK,” and “Natural Born Killers,” so I was long overdue to give this Best Picture winner a look.
Now I have seen several movies like “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Full Metal Jacket” which dealt with the Vietnam War in different ways be it psychedelic or unrealistic. The one thing they all had in common was that they were directed by filmmakers who had never served in Vietnam. Oliver Stone, however, had and “Platoon” is largely autobiographical for him. As a result, this is probably the first truly realistic depiction of the Vietnam War I have ever seen.
Charlie Sheen stars as Chris Taylor, and it’s interesting watching him here as this was long before he went bat shit and got fired from “Two and a Half Men.” Taylor serves as the narrator and most relatable character as like him we are coming into this war fresh-faced, naïve and innocent. The first scene where Taylor comes off a plane with a bunch of newbies is an omen of what is to come for him. Seeing body bags about to be loaded and crossing paths with those who have already seen the war up close quickly gives you an idea of what Taylor will look like at the movie’s end.
Sheen is perfectly cast as he makes Taylor go from being a newbie to an experienced combat veteran in little time. It’s a shame that he’s pissed a good portion of his talent away to where he’s pretty much playing a version of himself as some drunken womanizer because his work here is a strong reminder of how terrific he can be. He is utterly believable in a role no one would give him today.
Seeing Taylor struggle on through the Vietnamese jungle after the opening scene is a quick indication of how unprepared he and others are for this. Like many wars Americans have fought, it was on the soil of another country they were completely unfamiliar with. We see how that puts them at an immediate disadvantage which resulted in many deaths.
When it comes to Vietnam, Taylor makes it clear he is a unique case as he tells everyone he dropped out of college and volunteered to serve in the war. This makes him seem like part of a generation raised to believe that fighting in a war is both noble and infinitely patriotic, something to be proud of. He also sees it as justified as he feels that not only “poor kids” should be sent to fight instead of the rich. But he is soon to learn the truths about war, one of which is quickly given to him by King (Keith David) who tells him something that resonates just as much today with our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan:
“You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that. Ever'body know, the poor are always being fucked over by the rich. Always have, always will.”
The other two performances worth noting are the ones given by Willem Dafoe as Sergeant Elias and Tom Berenger as Sergeant Barnes. Both figure prominently in Taylor’s tour of duty, and even he says at one point that the two of them were fighting for his soul.
The first time I heard about “Platoon” was through movie review shows where Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were raving about, and Rex Reed was dumb enough to give it a negative review. It was through those shows that I became aware of who Dafoe was. His performance as Elias gave him his biggest audience yet, and he is mesmerizing as the idealistic soldier who sees America’s involvement in Vietnam ending badly. The Christ-like pose he gets in, whether its holding a machine gun over his shoulders or as he runs from and is shot by Vietnamese soldiers, is no mistake. Elias ends up dying for the sins of his fellow soldiers all while doing his best to protect them, and Dafoe is nothing short of amazing.
Berenger’s role as Barnes ranks among his best performances ever. He really succeeds in getting inside the head of someone who has been shot so many times that they have come out the other side in a psychologically altered state. Having seen death up close more than once, Barnes acts as if he has surpassed it. Berenger almost doesn’t need those scars for makeup to show you how many firefights his character has been in as watching him walk through the jungle, completely unaffected by explosions going off around him like he’s Colonel Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” is more than enough proof.
Stone makes you feel the blood, sweat, tears, and exhaustion all these soldiers end up going through, and it’s all so vivid that we come out of “Platoon” feeling like war veterans ourselves. It leaves all those other movies which make war seem like fun to utter shame. Coming from a filmmaker who has seen this particular war up close, we cannot deny the authenticity he puts on display here.
The movie also captures how quickly people can lose their moral bearings in the face of war. The scene in the village is by far “Platoon’s” most unnerving as we watch Taylor and the other soldiers overcome by their boiling anger. What’s so horrifying is that while you would like to believe you would have acted differently than they did, there’s no way you can be sure of that if you haven’t been in combat. The line between soldier and killer gets seriously blurred in this movie, and it becomes easy to understand why.
Before filming began, the cast were treated to an intensive military training course under the tutelage of former Marine Captain Dale Dye who also served in Vietnam. They were made to dig foxholes, subject to forced marches and nighttime ambushes which utilized special effects explosions. This succeeded in breaking them all down, and you can see and feel the weariness in them throughout the movie. It more than adds to the sheer realism that is inherent in “Platoon.”
There’s no victory to be found in “Platoon,” only death and destruction on both sides of the conflict. The movie gets at the truth of war which Danny DeVito talked about in “The War Of The Roses:”
“There is no winning! There’s only degrees of losing!”
The violence and death portrayed in “Platoon” may not seem quite as visceral as it did when it first came out. There have been many other war movies since it like “Saving Private Ryan” which featured scenes of such vicious violence that nothing else seemed to compare. Plus we all know about the Vietnam War in general and how it was a mistake in many ways. Still, “Platoon” is nothing less than a powerful experience as its vision of the craziness and insanity of war is impossible to shake once you have seen it.
I’m glad I finally got the opportunity to see it after all these years. I’m also glad I didn’t watch it when it first came out or for a few years afterwards because I’m convinced it would have fucked me up for a long time. The Vietnam War may be a thing of the past, but the lessons we all learned from it still need to be taught. America keeps fighting wars which, whether necessary or not, continually overstay their welcome and leave a lot of people feeling angry and betrayed. After watching “Platoon,” you will never look at war movies the same way again.
* * * * out of * * * *