Directed by: Oliver Stone || Produced by: Arnold Kopelson
Screenplay by: Oliver Stone || Starring: Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Forest Whitaker, Keith David, John C. McGinley
Music by: Georges Delerue || Cinematography: Robert Richardson || Editing by: Claire Simpson || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 120 minutes
Vietnam War-movies tend to be even harder to watch than most war flicks, as the lines between the “heroes” and “villains” are blurred more than in any other dramatized period of warfare in recent human history. In wars like World War II, which are widely known for being as black and white as military conflicts have become, the contrasting features between the heroic forces we are meant to root for and their opposing enemy platoons are well defined. That is almost never the case with the United States-North Vietnamese/Vietcong conflict in Vietnam during the overarching Cold War.
That is not to say that most wars throughout human history have not been many shades of grey, with the winners and losers not always corresponding with the righteous and evil. But because of the guerrilla nature and infamous legacy of the Vietnam War itself — namely, the immense public protest against American involvement — the Vietnam War remains by far the most unpopular war in modern American history.
Many great war films of the Vietnam conflict are centered around these themes of blurred morality and the uselessness of war, and Oliver Stone’s Platoon is among the most well known. Stone, who wrote and directed the film and also served as an infantryman in Vietnam, first rose to fame for his war films that dramatized the infamous Cold War conflict. The main premise of his magnum opus are the inner conflicts within US forces deployed to southeast Asia, rather than the actual physical conflicts between them and the Communist-allied Vietnamese forces. More broadly, Platoon analyzes the “duality of man” concept that has been studied in numerous other works, from fellow Vietnam War films like Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Apocalypse Now (1979), all the way back to the latter’s source material and inspiration in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Platoon focuses on the moral decay of soldiers in American units, and how this contributes to their inability to fight their Vietnamese enemies. Charlie Sheen sums up this theme with his on-the-nose voiceover, “We did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves… and the enemy was in us.”
The central conflict of this film is between Sergeant Elias (William Dafoe) and Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger). The battle between the compassionate, good-willed nature of humanity (Elias/Dafoe) and its opposite desire for wrath, hatred, and the willingness to sacrifice morality for survival (Barnes/Berenger), is far more important to Platoon than the actual warfare.
The primary thesis of a film like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now is that the opportunity to be good or evil exists within every human, and therefore people of all colors, creeds, and nationalities are equalized in that respect. No group is inherently morally superior to another, as all individuals have a potential “heart of darkness” within them. Any human being can become a Sgt. Elias or a Sgt. Barnes if given the chance. Elias and Barnes represent the epitomes of good vs. evil, in that while they do not feel like real people, they function as classic plot devices and the foundation of this narrative. Everyone else in the story, including Sheen’s protagonist, is somewhere along that continuum.
As Sheen becomes hardened and adapts to his harsh, unforgiving environment, his fellow unit members rapidly degrade as the jungle hell threatens to consume them all. Sheen’s arc is acceptable and effective; he is a useful protagonist that guides the audience through the story and who observes, learns and reacts to the conflict between Barnes and Elias. Sheen’s stance, and therefore Stone’s narrative’s stance on the issue, is quite clear: Don’t be an amoral asshole and allow the cruel world to make you, yourself, cruel. The resolution to the picture’s moral dilemma is predictable, but no less effective. Sheen’s final confrontation with Berenger is as memorable as Dafoe’s now classic cry to the sky.
Where the film makes most of its mistakes is in its combat scenes. For all the chaos and bloodshed occurring on screen, the camerawork is rather plain and reminiscent of the vanilla flavor of action scenes from Seven Samurai, but not in a good way. It is hard to tell what is going on in the shootouts, and exactly who is shooting whom. This isn’t a grave misstep, because the main premise of the movie is the symbolic moral conflict between the characters within the platoon, not the macroscopic view of the US-NVA/VC battlefield. However, given the frequency of the combat scenes and the impact they have on the main characters, this incoherent action cinematography grows tiresome by the film’s end.
With that said, most of the film is fantastic, from the aforementioned narrative to the grim lightning of the southeast Asian jungles that emphasize the film’s tone, to the poignant, melancholic score. Willem Dafoe’s famous pose has become the subject of parody ever since its release, but with context, it’s a punch to the gut, much like the rest of the movie.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Platoon tells a tale as old as Citizen Kane‘s (1941) “fall from grace” parable. Its examination of the duality of man and the “heart of darkness” that exists within all of us are fleshed out in disturbing detail. Sheen plays a solid protagonist that shows the actor has more than enough chops to take on serious, dramatic roles.
— However… the direction for the action scenes is incoherent, making most of the combat confusing and tiresome. Platoon’s relentless misery and deary, depressing tone will turn off any viewer looking for cinematic “entertainment,” which is much of the population most of the time.
? Everybody know the poor always being fucked over by the rich. Always have, always will.