Platoon (review)

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The Spoils of War

Never has the chaos and horror of battle been so in-your-face, so personal, as in writer/director Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Based on his experiences in Vietnam, this is a stark, caustic account of one man’s war.

The viewer is thrown directly into the fray with infantryman Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen). The first thing he, and we, see upon his arrival in Vietnam in September 1967 are piles of body bags on the tarmac, waiting to be shipped home. From that bitter howdy-do, he’s sent into the jungle with his new platoon, where “nobody cares about the new guy” — the veterans aren’t going to waste time training the raw recruits when they’ll likely be killed in the first week, anyway. But Chris picks up what he needs to know to survive, and we learn with him that soldiering is nothing more than long periods of boredom and physical discomfort — in the form of ants, leeches, and malaria — interrupted by moments of sheer terror, as intense, heartstopping firefights break out suddenly, in rain or dark, the enemy mere ghosts in the jungle, bullets flying capriciously out of nowhere and everywhere.

Platoon is almost plotless. There is no objective our protagonists must achieve and the enemy is mostly unseen. We have no context for the platoon’s movements — we don’t know where they’re going or why, and we are offered no explanation of the larger picture. It’s a chilling illustration of a grunt’s disorientation and disconnection from the outside world.

Unlike the recent The Thin Red Line, however, which could be similarly described, Platoon enthralls by keeping a sharp focus on Chris. Voiceovers in the form of letters to his grandmother make us privy to his thoughts, showing us an initial optimism — “maybe I can see something I can’t yet see, or learn something I don’t yet know” — that makes the inevitable hardening of his outlook all the more distressing. Chris, a college student who volunteered for combat duty, isn’t like the rest of his platoon, guys who are “poor, unwanted… they’re from the bottom of the barrel and they know it.” “I like it here,” one of Chris’s fellow soldiers says. “You get to do what you want — nobody fucks with you.” It’s easy to understand how men like this, with a sudden, relatively unsupervised outlet for a rage fostered back home, can become indiscriminate killers — Platoon does not sugarcoat the soldiers’ ill treatment of noncombatant natives. Chris’s sense of justice saves him from joining the mayhem at first — as, for example, he rescues two young Vietnamese girls from rape by American soldiers — but that same righteousness eventually pushes him to a point where he’s barely distinguishable from the men around him whose actions he decries.

Sheen’s performance is startling and honest, and it’s a shame he hasn’t been given the opportunity to equal it. Also notable are Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe as the platoon’s ideologically divided sergeants.

Platoon is a savage, candid film, full of searing images and ideas. Its visceral depiction of war still haunts me.

Oscars Best Picture 1986
AFI 100 (1998 list): #83

unforgettable movie moment:
An American sergeant puts a pistol to the head of a little Vietnamese girl to coerce her father into revealing Vietcong activity in their village.

previous Best Picture:
1985: Out of Africa
next Best Picture:
1987: The Last Emperor

previous AFI 100 film:
82: Giant
next AFI 100 film:
84: Fargo

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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