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Reconsidering 'Platoon' (1986)

Bryant Simon looks back at Stone’s first Best Director Oscar-winner.


Roger Ebert, in his 1986 review of Oliver Stone’s compelling Vietnam era film Platoon, quoted Francois Truffaut. The acclaimed French director once remarked that it was impossible to create an anti-war film, because all war movies turn combat into noble brawls or manly adventures. Not Oliver Stone’s Vietnam. Here war is mean, ugly, and even more, physically and psychologically disorientating. Hollywood recognized Stone’s accomplishment, awarding Platoon with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Stone), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.


The central character in Platoon is Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) and he bears a striking biographical resemblance to Oliver Stone. Like the filmmaker, Taylor is a well educated, upper-middle-class kid who enlisted in the Marines, when he didn’t have to, in search of glory, excitement, and manly validation. But the war that Stone depicts only takes; it robs soldiers of their morals, decency, and all too often their lives. Taylor sees this right from the start. Just as he is shipping out, he spots a line of flag-draped caskets coming back from the front.


In Vietnam, Taylor’s platoon, like the nation itself in the 1960s, is divided, split between whites and blacks, and between the juicers (who drink) and the heads (who get high). Even more fundamentally, the troops are split between two senior officers and two moral visions of war. With his scarred and grizzled face, Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is the king of the juicers; he is a brilliant and fiercely Machiavellian warrior. He will do anything to win, to cut down the enemy, and make sure his men survive to fight another day. The heads are led by Sgt. Elias, who tries to wage war not just to survive physically, but to some how survive the killing with his humanity in tact.


Stone doesn’t take the easy way out here, celebrating bravery or redemption. Taylor is torn by these two visions. His instincts, even his class background, lead him towards the heads. But he knows that Barnes and his sometimes vicious juicers, notably the nearly psychopathic Bunny (Kevin Dillon), are products of a geo-political hell created by know-nothing policy makers thousands of miles away. But they are also savviest soldiers and the most likely to make it through to the next battle. The morals tensions between Barnes and Elias are always there in Stone’s film and to his credit, they never get preachy or reduced to simple choices.


But the real strength of the film is its unvarnished depiction of the war itself. Soldiers in Stone’s Vietnam face real conditions. They are always hot and always slogging through a wet jungle. They can’t ever get dry and their feet swell with puss. The land-mine spiked ground below them makes every step an uncertain and perilous one. Mosquitoes and snakes are everywhere. And boredom, not an easy thing to weave into a film, hangs over the soldiers, as they wait for what they didn’t want, another battle.


On the guns do roar and the napalm explodes, Stone captures the ambushes and firefights brilliantly. The battles are full of chaos. Like Taylor and the men in his platoon, you never where the bullets are coming from. You never really know where the enemy is or even who is the enemy. Again, like the Vietnam war itself and an unlike a sneakily romantic film like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon features no epic battles, there are no Normadies, no Battles of the Bulges here. This refusal to inflate or glorify is the essence of Platoon’s courageous anti-war sensibility.


Avoiding these kinds of dramatic moments and pushing up against the flag-waving rhetoric of the Reaganites and the Rambos of his own day allows Stone to capture the war’s huge psychological tolls on US combatants. (In a later film, Heaven and Earth, he tried to tell the war story from the Vietnamese perspective, and in Born on Fourth of July, he looked at the long-term costs of the conflict and government and social indifference to veterans.) Vietnam, Stone makes clear, was a war of attrition and the point was to kill. As Philip Caputo, who like Stone was also an enlistee from a middle-class, Ivy League background, writes in his stirring memoir, A Rumor of War, “Our mission was not to win terrain or seize position, but simply to kill: to kill Communists and to kill as many of them as possible. Stack ‘em like cordwood. Victory was a high body-count, defeat a low body kill-ratio, war a matter of arithmetic.” 


In many ways, Platoon is the cinematic twin to A Rumor of War. In the first words of his book, Caputo states, “this book does not pretend to be history.” Neither does Platoon. But this lack of pretending is what makes both of the film and the book such great history. They both capture the past as it was really lived. In the case of Vietnam on the wet, dank ground, the war is portrayed in the book and the film is relentlessly wrenching, cruel, and costly.


The more we remember wars from the honest perspective of those who them, the less maybe we will start them in the first place. That surely is the simple, yet still powerful, anti-hawk position Oliver Stone, the war veteran and anti-Reagan-ite filmmaker, gives a messy life to in Platoon.


Bryant Simon


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