DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Platoon

Friday 3 June 2011


Platoon (1986) dir. Oliver Stone
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon


By Alan Bacchus

If we were comparing dick sizes, Platoon doesn’t quite stand up to the strong auteur works of Stanley Kubrick’s or Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam flicks. But few films before or since have captured the unique contradiction of the soldier’s point of view of the war better than Oliver Stone’s. Platoon is both an anti-war political film and a heroic celebration of the brotherhood of soldiers and men in battle.

It’s hard to remember Charlie Sheen as a wide-eyed naive everyman, but before he became hardened and crazy he embodied an American middle-class wholesomeness, which made him ideal for Oliver Stone's self-influenced character. As the audience’s eye into this war, Sheen’s character, Chris, is less a character to study and more a window into the insanity of war.

Platoon opens with Chris landing in the warzone and witnessing body bags being stacked into helicopters to be shipped back home. Samuel Barber’s weeping Adagio For Strings tells us exactly how we’re supposed to feel at this moment – that Chris has stepped onto the worst place on earth in the heart of an unwinnable war where both internal and external conflict has turned American soldiers into beasts of mayhem and destruction.

Stone’s narrative is unencumbered by upper-ranking military strategy or command. Instead, we see with plain simplicity the day-by-day grind of a soldier at ground zero in the war, in the jungle sweating out blood and bullets. For most of the film it’s a taut power struggle between two opposite personalities though equally influential within the platoon, Lt. Barnes (Berenger), the John Wayne-style rugged cowboy who goes by his own rules of the jungle, and Col. Elias (Dafoe), the Henry Fonda-like educated wasp, son of privilege and humanitarian.

Though there’s lots of gunfire, explosions, heroism and bloody horrific violence, Platoon never feels like a set-piece action film. Part of this is Stone’s unexploitive shooting style. It’s unstylistic and realistic but not show-offy like Saving Private Ryan, which, despite its honourable intentions, is a set-piece film. Stone is also clear to rarely, if ever, show the enemy. As such, gunfire feels random, which contributes to a truer feeling of realism.

The Barber music cue heard in the opening is reused as the main theme throughout the film. It sets a tone of sadness from beginning to end. Through this piece of music Stone is clear about his stance on the war, a clusterfuck of massive proportions and a sad stain on the American nation. It’s a terrific and memorable piece, but for cinema history fans it’s important to note that this wasn’t a Stone discovery. While it may be synonymous with Stone’s film, look to David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), which used this same cue to even more magnificent effect at the end of that marvellous film.

Looking back on the Vietnam War films, from Apocalypse Now to The Deer Hunter to Full Metal Jacket (and maybe even Tigerland), Platoon doesn’t quite stand up artistically to these others. But as a statement on the war, it is no doubt the most influential and arguably the final word about the Vietnam War on film in dramatic form.

Platoon is available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment.

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