(1986, Oliver Stone)
“We did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves”
Last time we saw a Western that managed to get me vaguely interested in places, although failed to win me over to the genre. Today we’re looking at film in another genre I kind of dislike and seeing if it manages to attract my attention in any way. Yes, this time it’s war movies, and we’re looking at Vietnam War movie Platoon.
Seen through the eyes of naïve trooper Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), Platoon aims to show a grim picture of the Vietnam War, based on writer/director Oliver Stone’s real-life experiences. He gains a mentor in Sergeant Elias (Willem Defoe) and a nemesis in the form of the cynical and somewhat violent Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger). As the movie progresses Chris has to deal with the horrors of war and realise that sometimes even the “good guys” are capable of some terrible things.
So yes, it’s yet another “war is hell” movie. So Platoon is full of exactly what you’d expect – an awful lot of scenes of soldiers and innocents caught in the crossfire breaking down and crying a lot, lots of blood and gore and death and lots of long, lingering shots of the despair and hopelessness of war, especially with a war as pointless and draining as Vietnam.
But here’s the catch. Platoon avoids a lot of the problems of other “war is hell” movies by not labouring the point. Honestly, it was a massive breath of fresh air to not have the camera linger on limbless soldiers weeping in foxholes for about an hour while a composer gets to go to town on a mournful piano. There’s plenty of lingering horror here, of course, but it never once hangs around the house. It doesn’t try and manipulate the audience. It doesn’t overdo itself. And I, for one, welcome this. Other war movies could do well to follow this example.
So instead of emotional manipulation of the audience, Platoon opts for character development. It sets up a clear protagonist and defines at least two more characters as important, and then focuses on how these three interact. We also get plenty of fleshed-out moments between squad members interacting in realistic ways, building up a comradery and generally being human beings. And I hugely appreciate that Oliver Stone chose to take this route, because it makes the film that much stronger as a whole.
Some examples? Okay, sure. Two soldiers are horribly mutilated in an explosion, and we get a few quick shots of one of them dying. It doesn’t run in slow motion or force us to feel sad, it merely shows us and lets us deal with it ourselves. Sergeant Barnes is portrayed as a bad person but it’s not played up like some pantomime villain – when he points a gun at a young Vietnamese girl, it’s a relatively quick moment but it tells us everything. We get just enough information and are allowed to consider the implications ourselves.
What also helps is that every single actor in this movie is fantastic. It’s pre-“Tiger Blood” Sheen, when he looked like he wanted to beat his dad at acting skill. Tom Berenger is evil and menacing without overdoing it. Willem Defoe plays his part as mentor so well that even I started looking up to him. Even the support cast, with their much smaller roles, feel like essential parts of a larger whole. It couldn’t have worked without them. Although having said that, I genuinely don’t remember Johnny Depp being in it but he’s on the cast list so who knows.
The main issue with Platoon, however, is that it doesn’t really feel like it has much of a plot, or much to drive it from one scene to another. There’s the vague “Barnes is a bad man” plot, but this feels like a subplot rather than the driving force behind the movie. There isn’t even a central conflict. It’s basically Vietnam War Stuff: The Movie, which kind of works and kind of doesn’t.
Platoon is a very good movie. Not entirely my taste as films go, but its ability to demonstrate the horrors of war without overdoing it and the uniformly brilliant acting mean that I can certainly appreciate the craft involved, and it’s definitely one of the better war movies I’ve seen.
Starring Tom Berenger, Willem Defoe & Charlie Sheen
Written by Oliver Stone
Produced by Arnold Kopelson
Music by Georges Delerue
Cinematography by Robert Richardson
Edited by Claire Simpson
Favourite Scene: The scenes in the Vietnamese village, which show the depths at which Barnes is willing to plunge, were perfectly executed.
Scene That Bugged Me: The movie feels like it loses momentum towards the end when it almost becomes a generic war movie.
Watch it if: You want a genuinely fascinating war movie
Avoid it if: You’re expecting Charlie Sheen to show about how much he’s “winning”