'Platoon': Choices, Lies, False Hopes and Spoiled Innocence of Another Era, Rather Like Our Own

Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe in Platoon (1986)

Although it's been said that Platoon is a war movie for people who hate war, it's better described as a war movie that questions the premises of every war film that came before -- and many that came after.


Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe
Distributor: MGM
Rated: R
Release date: 2011-05-24

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the World War II monument and the Vietnam Memorial. The World War II site is monumental in every sense, a celebration of what Studs Terkel famously called “the good war” that is surprisingly abstract and unflinchingly celebratory. Ironically, the monument feels like something from Mussolini’s EuR, the unfinished suburb in Rome that featured a fascist architecture that favors the stark and the severe.

By contrast, the Vietnam Memorial feels deeply human, frighteningly alive with tragedy. Its reflective surface burns away sentiment, amputates false memory and cauterizes the national wound. It utterly deconstructs any notion of the glory of war. It feels less like a monument and more like a spontaneous cry of pain, torn out of a country that is too often comfortable with its own certainties.

Stone’s epic does much the same, unflinchingly examining wounds so raw in 1986 that the film becomes a cinematic spasm of agony. Although it's been said that Platoon is a war movie for people who hate war, it's better described as a war movie that questions the premises of every war film that came before it and not a few that have come after it.

For this reason and many others, Platoon is on my list of personal favorites, indeed on my trapped-on-a-desert-island –with-a-Blu ray-player list of 20 or so films. I think that there are better war films ( Full Metal Jacket, Battle of Algiers and Das Boot all come to mind), but none better for me. From the first hump through the jungle that seems to perfectly combine banality and terror, to Willem Dafoe’s revelatory Sgt. Elias, to the overwhelming sadness of "Adagio for Strings" -- all make for a near perfect film.

Sadly, a new generation of prospective fans, and not a few older fans who haven’t seen this classic in a while, will receive a jolt when they see Charlie Sheen on-screen the first time. Long before his excruciatingly public psychotic episode, Sheen was a real person, a talented young actor following in his genius father’s footsteps, and literally a taking point on what would become a definitive war picture.

Sheen plays Chris Taylor, a combat ingénue that becomes our window into the ethical morass of Platoon, a young man caught between father figures while in the throes of all Cold War naïveté. So, prepare a head of time. Say “warlock” and “winning?” and “tiger blood” out loud a few times. Make a porn star joke. Get it out of your system. Mostly, just feel the poignancy of early promise gone so badly wrong.

Sheen to one side, part of the pleasure of multiple viewing of a film like this is the pleasure of watching great performances. Tom Berenger is utterly convincing and utterly terrifying as Sgt. Barnes. Willem Dafoe plays Elias, Christ-figure of the free-fire zone. Stone points out in his audio commentary that Dafoe had previously played thugs, gangsters and heavies of all sorts, making his Elias a character against type. I have always loved Dafoe’s work, largely because of Platoon but for many other efforts, as well. Controversy and some unfortunate editing overshadowed what I think was an amazing performance in Last Temptation of Christ. More recently he was essential to Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and, really, I even love his Norman Osborn.

Meanwhile, we also meet a young Forrest Whittaker and an even younger Johnny Depp, both channeling into their characters the disturbing beauty of youth in the muck and mire.

The 25th anniversary Blu-Ray edition contains a wealth of extras focused on placing the film in context and attempting to explain how it mediated the memory of the Vietnam War. The primary theme of these features tends to be Stone and technical advisor Dale Dye discussing their respective experiences in Vietnam and how those experiences influenced the film.

Oliver Stone’s willingness to talk about his own experiences in relation to the film immeasurably strengthens both the commentary and the special features. Even if you have seen this five times, it makes all the difference to hear Stone describe how Sheen’s Taylor is in many ways the embodiment of a young Stone, an idealistic but deeply torn soldier.

The disc also features a series of discussions with Dale Dye, a Vietnam veteran who served as technical advisor on Platoon and appears in the film as Captain Harris. It's unusual for film extras to give so much time to the technical advisor. Given Dye’s personal experience, however, it fits well with the featurette’s effort to place this film in the context of history, memory and representation. Just be aware that all of these are interviews recorded over a decade ago, so there's nothing much new here. More recent interviews taking place during our current era of foreign adventures would have made the film seem more up to date, especially for new viewers.

Although it comes with a similar set of extras to the 20th anniversary release, the Blu-Ray is still an essential. The source is, of course, the 2006 High Def remaster and the Blu-Ray carries over the new sharpness and color contrast. Where you really can tell the difference is in the sound, obviously an essential element in war films. The Blu-Ray bumps up the Dolby to 5.1 DTS-HD and makes the firefights a revelation even if you’ve seen this picture as many times as I have.

Stone fashioned a monument alive with the horror of history with this film, and shaped it out of the terrors of his personal and America’s collective angst. Platoon is a tale of the pity of war combined with a soul-wrenching look at the choices, lies, false hopes, and spoiled innocence of another era. An era that sometimes looks too much like our own.


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