In the pantheon of war movies, Platoon, by Oliver Stone, stands tall. I watched the movie again the other night on a streaming service and was amazed at how well it holds up. The film is 33 years old and makes other similar movies look fairly lame in comparison.
Platoon was a big deal on its release in 1986, as it was the first war movie to take an infantryman’s look at Vietnam. I don’t mean that from the perspective of John Wayne-style jingoism. There are no false heroics in Platoon; this is not a fantasy picture in which America emerges as the victor. Sylvester Stallone in 1985 had sent Rambo back to SE Asia to “win the war,” but that view is bullshit. We got our asses kicked over there, and Stone, who was there, knows it.
The movie was shocking in its depiction of violence and the sometimes abhorrent (even extra-legal) behavior of U.S. troops in Vietnam. Audience had been coddled by Gary Cooper and Audie Murphy and Charlton Heston, lulled into a false sense of superiority by Schwarzenegger and Stallone. But what everyone knew, but was afraid to admit, was that Vietnam had been a quagmire, a mistake, a smear on the military and political history of America, and Platoon came along and shouted it from the rooftops. To see that movie in 1986 was an experience unlike any other, and not just for the language and violence. No, the message was that young men were sent by old man to Vietnam, where they fought and died, seemingly, for nothing. That’s the takeaway, and it still hurts after all these years.
Platoon marked a turning point. It was the first time a filmmaker gave us an honest look at war, any war. It is defined by the chaos of the firefight. Though we’ve gotten used to such an approach thanks to more recent war films like Saving Private Ryan (a great one) and Black Hawk Down (another great one), Stone got there first, showing us the war from the troops’ eye view. There are a few military strategists here and there in the movie, but they mean nothing. Bombs and bullets rain down without rhyme or reason, men are killed, and there is no larger significance. You were lucky to survive a single day in the bush. John Wayne would probably have gotten killed.
The movie is unrelenting, pared down, purposeful. It is soaked in grim reality and terribly, terribly sad. I would not call it entertaining. When Charlie Sheen’s innocent young Chris first disembarks in “the Nam,” he’s confronted by the sight of other soldiers going home in body bags. There is a significant moment when he spots an older man whose time in country is up. They exchange stares, the older man’s cynical grin saying it all: You’re screwed, kid, and even if you live, you’ll never be the same. The whole movie is about Chris becoming that man.
We believe every moment, every detail of this movie. More than Apocalypse Now, this movie is Vietnam because Stone lived it. He was Chris. He did drop out to go experience combat firsthand, to see what was happening to the disadvantaged men of America who got caught up in the draft and shipped off to the rice paddies. When Keith David ridicules Chris’ decision to drop out of college and fight, he’s commenting on Stone’s actual life. The movie feels so real because it is deeply personal.
There are two larger figures in the story who may be apocryphal, or perhaps for Stone, represent other soldiers who’ve been combined into single personalities for the sake of the film. One is Elias, the “water-walking” veteran played by Willem Dafoe (in the role that made him a star). The other is Barnes (Tom Berenger), the scarred, hostile, thoroughly untrustworthy staff sergeant. They represent the two extremes of soldiering for Chris, who must choose which man to follow. Elias acts with compassion and mercy, and a sense of proportion; he’s enraged by any senseless act, but unafraid to do what is necessary to survive. Barnes has become a mere killer for whom war is a means to an end, and that end is death. He’ll do anything to advance his own agenda, which is simply to kill. Chris sees the value in each man’s point of view, but is forced to pick a side — or, put another way, to exact justice where justice is due. His crucial decision is the crux of the film.
But Platoon isn’t really about a plot. It’s about the moral gulf that separates Barnes from Elias. Chris represents America — will he come down on the side of justice and mercy, or use war as an excuse to slaughter yellow people? (Fifty years later, we’re still answering that question.) Stone brilliantly succeeds in making us see each man’s side. Barnes has been forced to accept the fact that annihilation has become the official (if unspoken) policy of the U.S. toward the North Vietnamese. He acts accordingly. Elias, on the other hand, knows that the only way to maintain one’s humanity in the face of barbarity is by showing restraint. Neither man hesitates pulling the trigger when lives are on the line, it’s just that Barnes will pull the trigger when it suits him — even if there’s another American in his sights. The way the movie portrays these two opposing points of view, yet gets us to understand, even sympathize with them, is its boldest stroke.
There’s also an undercurrent of political commentary, as the characters remark on the divide between rich and poor in America. (The poor get shipped off to the Nam; the rich set the policies that get them killed.) Chris is a privileged white kid whose very compassion for the poor marks him as soft and privileged. He has the power to make a choice. His fellow soldiers are draftees, poor white boys from the hills, and urban blacks straight from the streets of New York, Chicago, wherever. Chris doesn’t fit in because the war was never meant for him to fight. I can’t say that his decision to join up makes him more admirable.
One thing that struck me early in this film was the number of black actors in the cast. Platoon subtly makes the point that Vietnam wasn’t all fought by white kids. It was fought by black men like Manny and Junior, King and Big Harold, who lived in fear and died in agony. This flies in the face of decades of American war movies, where white men make all the decisions, fight the good fight, kill the funny-looking foreigners, declare victory, and ride off into the sunset. (This applied to Westerns, too, after all those Injun savages had been cleaned up by Randolph Scott.) It’s an upraised middle finger to every John Wayne movie ever made.
The film embraces the counterculture, also shocking in the mid-Eighties. The soldiers openly smoke dope and toss words like “motherfucker” and “cocksucker” like grenades. It portrays them as desperate, angry, downtrodden, cynical, mercenary, and, in some instances, borderline criminal. (A couple of the characters come across as thinly-disguised rapists, and indeed, there is a scene where Chris breaks up the sexual assault of some innocent Vietnamese girls. He is spat upon by his fellow soldiers for daring to show civility in the face of horror.)
There is also a lot of complexity and nuance. Chris is portrayed as an innocent abroad — he succumbs to heat sickness, ant bites, and exhaustion, and mistakes a mere flesh wound for a fatal injury in his first battle — but later physically assaults some defenseless villagers, seemingly out of frustration. Later, he comes to his senses and attacks Barnes, who has murdered not only villagers but also a fellow soldier. In the climactic battle, he embraces his inner warrior and runs screaming into the fight, shooting anything that moves. We can understand the inconsistency; the war is changing him; he doesn’t know who he is, how to behave, or which side is right. Hell, maybe both sides are. We have no idea.
The battle sequences are jarring, numbing, terrifying. We never know where the enemy is coming from. There’s an early night patrol where Chris, fighting sleep, thinks he sees NVA hiding among some trees. Slowly, the enemy soldiers emerge, and I realized that, among other things, surviving in Vietnam meant learning how to see things properly. Other battle scenes portray the headlong rush of combat, with the opposing forces literally approaching each other from opposite sides of the screen. Stone’s tracking camera picks up characters in the jungle, leads them a little, then runs alongside them, cutting to enemy combatants rushing heedlessly into danger. Sometimes, the two sides are both American. We have met the enemy, and he is us.
At two hours, the movie feels like 20 minutes. It is one of the fastest, leanest, most aggressively-paced movies I’ve ever seen, and yet it seems to omit nothing and gives even the smallest supporting role its due. There are no women in the cast, but how could there be? Stone fought alongside men; he has no time for other considerations, and anything else would be false. I have no doubt that some liberties were taken, but you’d have to be a historian or one of Stone’s fellow troops to spot them.
The acting is invisible. The actors simply become troops in Vietnam. But a few stand out. Keith David wins the movie as King, the dope-smoking short-timer who sees through Chris’ bullshit, and calls him out on it. Dafoe brings grit and integrity to the “saintly” role of Elias. John C. McGinley makes a disgusting ass-kisser; it’s a tribute to his skill that we finally identify with him, and sympathize. I will say that future movie star Johnny Depp hardly makes an impression. The only — only, only — questionable link in the chain is Sheen, who’s a little too puppy-dog cute for this movie. It is interesting to think what another burgeoning movie star, Tom Cruise, could have done with this role, but in 1986, he was busy in that Air Force ad known as Top Gun.
Stone, of course, went on to become an A-list director, with JFK and Natural Born Killers still to come. Say what you want about those pictures; Platoon is his masterpiece. It was the best and most important movie of the 1980s.
And here’s some campy racist bullshit, which Stone obviously hoped to discredit:
Now which version do you think comes closest to the truth? And which carries more moral weight? Which one do you think gave more of a boost to an aging white movie star’s career? And how bout that wall of punji sticks, conveniently hidden behind a curtain of “foliage”?