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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #59: Platoon (1986)

Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger

Even if it wasn’t an incredibly well-written and visually arresting film, Platoon would still have a secure place in the minds of many moviegoers for having one of the most memorable death scenes ever filmed. That image of Willem Dafoe, arms reaching up as his body convulses with the force of several gunshot wounds, is so iconic that it is one of pop culture’s definitive image of the Vietnam War (and at this point probably more famous than the actual photograph which inspired it). But, of course, Platoon is more than just that one image and what comes before and after is just as compelling and just as resonant.

The story centers on Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a young kid who enters the war enthusiastically but eventually becomes deeply disillusioned. He’s assigned to a platoon that includes Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sergreant Elias (Dafoe), who will be in nearly constant conflict throughout the course of the film. Taylor soon finds his place within the group and they head out on a series of patrols which find him becoming more hardened by his experiences. In one village a weapons cache is found, leading to an angry confrontation with the villagers. First, Taylor essentially tortures a one-legged man by shooting at his foot and forcing him to “dance,” and is followed by Bunny (Kevin Dillon), another soldier, beating the man to death. Then Barnes shoots a woman in the head and holds her child at gunpoint in an effort to get the villagers to reveal the whereabouts of the Vietnamese soldiers. This leads to a physical altercation between Barnes and Elias which serves as the catalyst for the events which leave Taylor cynical and broken.

Elias reports Barnes’ actions but is informed that Barnes won’t be removed because there is already a shortage of personnel. After being ambushed during the next patrol, Barnes shoots Elias and leaves him for dead, retreating with everyone else to be airlifted out of the area. As the helicopter pulls away, Elias drags himself out of the jungle with a group of Vietnamese soldiers close behind and dies an agonizing death. Back at the base, Taylor attempts to rally the others into killing Barnes, who overhears and holds a knife to Taylor’s throat, threatening to kill him. Later their positions will be reversed and Taylor will shoot Barnes, killing him before collapsing from his own wounds. As he’s carried away to receive medical attention, all he can do is weep at what he has become and what he has witnessed.

Written and directed by Oliver Stone when he was at the peak of his ability to tell a story without drenching it in self-indulgence, Platoon is a very finely wrought film. It does not shy away from violence, but nor does it glory in it. It’s an unflinching portrayal of the devastation of war on both the body and the soul, its character mired in moral ambiguity from which they may never emerge. The battle sequences unfold chaotically, leaving the viewer feeling somewhat disoriented, unsure which direction is up and which direction is down. This serves to underscore the anxieties that plague the characters, chipping away at their sanity. How can one maintain any sense of equilibrium when everything is in constant confusion, when both your senses and your sense of morality are so steadily being attacked?

Stone based the story on his own experiences in Vietnam and spent years trying to get it made, first contending with studio execs who thought that a film about the Vietnam War wouldn’t be commercial enough, and then contending with studio execs who had found that Vietnam War films could be commercially successful but had decided, in their infinite wisdom, that the definitive Vietnam War films had already been made through the likes of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. This was a real labour of love for the director and that shows in the care and attention that has gone into it. Stone is a hit and miss director but when he’s on (and able to curb his impulse to leap over the top), he’s truly on and here he delivers something extraordinary.

Playing the lead, Sheen renders a serviceable performance that guides Taylor from clean slate to the darkest depths. Taylor’s role is primarily that of witness, the point of entry through which the audience accesses the story, while Barnes and Elias are the opposing forces that shape and drive the narrative. This works extremely well since Sheen is a bit limited as an actor, while Berenger and Dafoe (both of whom received Best Supporting Actor nominations) are more than capable of doing the heavy lifting that the story requires. Their characters are the ones who really bring the story to life and leave a mark in the minds of viewers.

Platoon is not a simple story of good (US) vs. evil (Vietnam), but a complex exploration of the capacity for good (represented by Elias) and the capacity for evil (represented by Barnes) that exists in all individuals, and the struggle for dominance of one over the other that occurs in extreme circumstances. It is not an easy film, nor a triumphant one; it ends on a note of deepest despair, revealing wounds that will never heal. It is, without question, one of the most effective war movies ever made and a true cinematic masterpiece.


Jack L said...

I love this film!

I also love (although to a lesser degree) the two "sequels", Born On The Fourth Of July and Heaven and Earth, Oliver Stone managed to create three excellent films with his Vietam Trilogy...

Very well written review, you do this great film justice!

Norma Desmond said...

Thanks. It's hard to go wrong writing about such a great movie.