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From the DVD Shelf: Platoon (1986)

After watching The Deer Hunter (click here for my review), I decided to move on to another famous Vietnam war movie that I’d never seen: Platoon.

Oliver Stone wrote and directed the film, based on his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam in 1967-68.  Oliver Stone is an interesting director to me.  I respect his work as a writer and as a director, though I haven’t really seen many of his films.  Maybe one of these days I should do a re-watching project (like my De Palma series which, by the way, I will be getting back to eventually…), but for whatever reason there aren’t that many films in Mr. Stone’s filmography that really interest me.  But Platoon is a movie I have long wanted to see, and the film didn’t disappoint.

Platoon has an interesting structure.  It depicts the one year posting in Vietnam of a young infantryman, Chris (Charlie Sheen), the Oliver Stone stand-in character.  Most of these war movies tend to begin with a sequence in basic training to introduce us to all the characters before they get to the war.  But Platoon skips over all of that.  The film begins the moment the plane carrying Chris and his fellow soldiers touches down in Vietnam, and it ends a year later when Chris steps back onto a plane to take him away.

The film is basically divided into two halves.  The first half is a series of vignettes of Chris’ experiences in ‘Nam: suffering on long marches through the jungle, struggling to stay awake on watch in the pouring rain, being in combat, and dealing with incredible stress and fatigue, not to mention the brutal heat, the disease-carried mosquitoes, the red ants, and many more terribly unpleasant experiences.  As we watch these events unfold, we, like Chris, learn about the experience of the war from the perspective of the infantrymen.  Because these scenes were all based on Oliver Stone’s real experiences, the movie has a powerful verisimilitude.  I  understand, of course, that this is still a Hollywood version of the Vietnam experience, but the events I was watching felt honest and real to me, which I enjoyed and appreciated.  I think it’s why the first half of the film works so well.

We also gradually meet many of the other members of Chris’ platoon, most notably the two very different leaders: the kindly Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the vicious, scarred Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger).  Willem Dafoe often plays the villain or the weirdo, so it’s delightful to see him playing the tough but fair Elias, a good man trying to do his best in a tough situation.  Tom Berenger, meanwhile, is a nightmare come to life as the fierce and terrifying Barnes.  Chris’ platoon is populated by many other now-famous faces, including Forest Whitaker, John C. McGinley, and Kevin Dillon.  Anyone who’s watched any of the behind-the-scenes material from HBO’s magnificent miniseries Band of Brothers knows Dale Dye, the tough-as-nails military advisor from that project.  He served a similar function on Platoon (and is, I’d wager, a huge reason for the verisimilitude of the film that I was just praising a moment ago, seeing as how Mr. Dye was a Vietnam veteran himself), and he pops up on screen in a cameo role as well.

After a terrible confrontation in a Vietnam village (staged to echo the Mai Lai massacre), the second half of the film focuses on the conflict between Elias and Barnes that divides the loyalty of the platoon.  Although it’s still gripping, I found myself less interested in this second half of the film.  It felt more Hollywood to me, like the filmmakers felt we needed to have more clearly defined heroes and villains.  None of this is bad, exactly, it just feels more familiar and less interesting that the first half.  That first half felt like I was really watching someone’s experiences in Vietnam.  The second half feels like a movie about Vietnam.

Made for an unbelievably low budget of six million dollars, Platoon feels like a big-budget Hollywood epic when in reality it was a little independent film.  I give enormous credit to Oliver Stone for pulling off the film, and for creating a movie that not only looks far more epic than you would ever think would be possible with that miniscule budget, but one that has stood the test of time.  Platoon holds up very well.  It doesn’t have the visual majesty of The Deer Hunter, but whereas that film’s central plot felt somewhat outlandish with its Russian Roulette story-line (even though I felt that story-line possessed a powerful emotional truth), Platoon feels more true, in the details, to what the experience of a “grunt” in Vietnam was really like.  Does that make Platoon a better film than The Deer Hunter? No, it doesn’t.  The two are such different films they are hard to compare.  They’re different animals, with entirely different points to make and entirely different approaches.  In many ways, The Deer Hunter aims higher than does Platoon. I feel The Deer Hunter is chasing some universal truths, whereas Platoon is more of a specific chronicle of this one terrible conflict.  But, again, that doesn’t make one better than the other.  I’ve enjoyed watching them both.

I’ll close by again praising Oliver Stone’s efforts as a writer and director of this film.  Platoon is very much an Oliver Stone picture, and I enjoy it very much for that.

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