Platoon (1986)

Director: Oliver Stone

Starring: Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen

One thing I will never be accused of is blind patriotism. I didn’t grow up believing that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. How can I be sure of it when I’ve never been further from my home than a ten-hour bus drive up to Pennsylvania? Even if I had ever taken a trip outside the United States, what makes the human beings that occupy my part of the world any better than those who live on the other side of this little blue planet? For a long time, it was believed we were better because we had chosen democracy, and that any nation which had adopted communism was evil and had to be corrected. In the 1960’s and the early part of the 1970’s, Vietnam was the focal point of a long, brutal, and ultimately futile attempt to “make the world safe from communism.”

Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is a young American deployed to Vietnam in 1967 who, unlike most of the others in his platoon who were drafted, actually volunteered for combat. He comes in with a sense of patriotism, as well as a legacy to live up to. His father and grandfather both served in the Army, and so he sees it as being his turn now. If only he’d known what he was getting himself into, maybe he’d have moved to Canada instead. Unfortunately, there’s no instruction manual for how to handle both external and internal conflicts. It’s one thing to have to sleep in shifts, constantly picking the fire ants and the leeches off of your flesh while you’re waiting for the Viet Cong to come and blow you and your fellow soldiers into tiny bits. It’s another thing entirely when you’re also dealing with a civil war within your own ranks.

Chris’s platoon is divided almost 50/50, with loyalties split between the ruthless Staff Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the more free-spirited Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe). Those who are with Barnes are emotionally stunted, and exceptionally violent. Some of these men are animals in the truest sense of the word. They have no place in a civilized society. Those in Elias’s camp… Chris among them… partake in mind-altering drugs, listen to “hippie” music, and try hard not to think too much about the horrors that await them out in the shit. They’re waiting for their orders to come in so they can hop the first helicopter out of this hellhole.

What defines a hero is as subjective as anything else, but it seems to be a term which is thrown around a lot more casually than others. In my estimation, “hero” is a title that cannot be given away; it must be earned. There is a noticeable shortage of heroism in “Platoon.” The characters around which the story progresses fight and kill each other with as much unsettling ease as they do to the Vietnamese, whom they also terrorize, rape, and burn down their villages. Part of this is due to the lies they’ve been fed by the U.S. government, and part of it is built out of their own frustrations from being so far away from home in a foreign land where they’re not especially welcome. War seems to always be shrouded in a confusing shade of grey.

Although we see most of the action in “Platoon” through Chris’s weary eyes, the most interesting character is Staff Sgt. Barnes. He’s an immoral son of a bitch, for certain, but he’s a hell of a soldier. It makes one wonder if it’s this war that’s made him that way, or if he’s always been flirting with insanity and being in the military has simply made him a more efficient killer. He’s got an incredible legend: Having been shot seven different times has cause some of his infantrymen to ponder the thought that he may be invincible. The scars on his body, in particular the distinctive one on the right side of his face, are an untold story all to themselves. How did he acquire them, and in which battle? Are they clues to the shaping of his state of mind, or are they just old wounds? Whatever the case may be about Staff Sgt. Barnes, actor Tom Berenger gives a memorable, scary and intimidating performance in bringing him to life.

This movie is also blessed with a supporting cast filled with recognizable faces. In addition to future Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, you have John C. McGinley, Keith David, Tony Todd, Kevin Dillon and a baby-faced Johnny Depp (who, at this point, still hadn’t decided whether to make a career out of acting). Some, like Depp, are not around nearly long enough. Perhaps the most memorable is Kevin Dillon’s Bunny, a sadistic little creep who has Barnes’s violent streak but lacks a certain discipline.

If “Platoon” is a genuinely depressing look at a depressing point in American history (and it is), it’s because it’s based in part on the real-life experiences of its director, Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam Veteran and a recipient of the Bronze Star, the Purple heart, and the Army Commendation Medal. I don’t care to speculate what exactly he saw during his time there, nor do I care to. I prefer to sleep at night. What is clear is that Chris Taylor, more or less, IS Oliver Stone.

You won’t catch me watching too many war movies from back in the day (i.e. pre-1970), and for two reasons. Firstly, too few of them are willing to present the blood-stained ugliness of war in its true form, including what remains of those who are fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate) enough to survive. Secondly, most of those gung ho movies are centered around World War II, a necessary war which the U.S. helped to resolve, ridding the world of an evil unlike anything ever seen before. Vietnam shows a truly ugly side to war, in which we really had no right or reason to invade there, and didn’t even get the job done.

When the various military holidays such as Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day roll around, rather than think of how we have “the greatest military in the world,” I think instead of the unfortunate souls who never got to come home to their families, especially the ones who would never have put themselves in danger in the first place if they’d had any choice in the matter. I also think of how I almost never came into being because of the Draft, and of how precious that makes my own life. Such are the musings which enter into my mind when watching a masterpiece like “Platoon.”

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Well done! I agree with your assessment of war in general, esp. Viet Nam and later, of course. This movie was one of the first and best in describing what us nonveterans should visualize when we think about this war and most all wars. I’m glad the draft didn’t suck in your father or send him to Canada, but it almost did! I’m esp. thankful we have a bright, free-thinking, articulate son and daughter, too, both of whom are equally compassonate.

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