Oliver Stone: Platoon (1986) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Oliver Stone: Platoon (1986)

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A fresh faced buck looking to make God and country proud in Vietnam finds out there's a lot more to fighting a war than gumption and tech.  Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is about to find out what it takes to survive in a war that makes no sense.It is called Platoon and not Happy Puppy FuntimeKyle Commentary BannerI was not prepared for this. I've seen Platoon before, probably 10 years ago, and maybe it was the fact that I watched it again on a Sunday at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, but this time around it did not seem like the same movie. This time I understood the hype. That doesn't mean it's not without significant flaws, but underneath those flaws Oliver Stone made a movie that looks not so much at war as it does at combat, and by divorcing combat almost entirely from the larger purposes that it's supposed to serve, he offers a deeper and more complex understanding of the old “horrors of war.” Here this isn't so much a cliché as an inherent condition in which the characters live, without beginning or end and without any larger context—the war here is shown in a more immediate, relatable, less philosophical way than many of the other films about Vietnam at the time.

This brings us to the first problem: we could make a list of great or nearly great movies almost ruined by voice-overs, and this would be on it. I'm not sure why Stone felt the need for Charlie Sheen to chime in with obvious statements like “I can't believe we're fighting ourselves when we should be fighting them,” right after a particularly bad battle in which a personal feud leads to a death by betrayal. We can see that. That was the point of the previous scenes. This feels like Stone couldn't resist stepping in and lecturing us on what we just learned, rather than letting us come to those conclusions through the same nightmarish experience as the characters.

Ham-fisted voice-over aside though, what impressed me so much here is how the film is able to, through increasing intensity and chaos, show the way battle not only strips away the characters' individual personalities and the sub-cultures formed during the moments of peace back at camp, but how in place of these things killing and violence become the only mode of interaction. In early scenes the violence at least seems necessary on a situational level: they are in battle, and there are those who are trying to kill them, so they fight back to preserve their own lives. These early scenes effectively show how in this chaos any ideology behind the war (which is wisely avoided) is meaningless.

But by the time we get to the end of the film, a seemingly endless night battle in which we're bombarded with scene after scene of shootings, stabbings, and explosions, we're muted to any personalities, character conflicts, or plot points that have come before. Literally the only thing we have to focus on is the chaos, and when we are able to pick out a recognizable character, it's because they're being shot, stabbed, or exploded. The violence is our only lens through which to see the world they inhabit, and while Stone pulls back again following the battle, the effect is too strong to really go away.

That just touches on some of what struck me so much this time around, but what say you? Mind changed or no?As clear to follow as it should beAndrewCommentaryBannerI didn’t have the sort of “This is where I was when JFK was shot” sort of reaction you seem to be having, but it’s the definitive statement on the reality of the Vietnam War and my appreciation skyrocketed this time around.  As  you touched on, Sheen’s performance is atrocious - but is that really Sheen’s fault?  To a point, absolutely, but keep in mind there was something about Sheen that prompted Oliver Stone to cast him in the lead role of Wall Street and the guy still kept getting steady work until his flame-out a few years ago.

Part of me is sympathetic because of the murderer’s row of talent he’s surrounded by.  He also at least has the look of someone that would be a good audience surrogate into the jungle with all these crazy fighters.  But that still doesn’t explained the surfer dude reactions, bizarrely emotionless responses to events like Willem Dafoe pointing a gun at Sheen and telling him to smoke, and one of the most horribly botched reaction shots when Sheen commits to a crime at the end.  Still, I understand why Sheen’s involved and Stone does share some of the blame for writing that horrible voice-over.

The rest of the movie is a brutal slog in a way that previous Vietnam films weren’t.  To contrast this against two of the giants - there’s still romanticism around the nihilistic rambling in Apocalypse Now, and as great as The Deer Hunter is the film has moments reminiscent more of painful nostalgia than acknowledging the horror of the war.  Platoon doesn’t have time for any of that.  If you’re not dying then you’re toiling, if you’re not confused about where to go you’re confused about where to shoot.

The moment that makes this haltingly clear is after a night of debauchery the camera pan-wipes to the next day’s patrol – two soldiers have their guns pointed forward, pan further and you see one has his pointed in reverse, further and one in another direction entirely.  No one knows what they’re doing here and Stone shows that clearly, even if nothing else is.This is about as effective as Sheen's acting gets

So, where's the controversy?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThe most controversial thing about Platoon seems to me to be its willingness to acknowledge and focus on the fact that U.S. troops were culpable in some of the horror that was Vietnam. Stone shows horrible events like the beating, rape, and murder of Vietnamese villagers by the soldiers in a way that's scary not only because of the events themselves, but because we can begin to understand how the war has damaged some of these troops in a way that has created a culture that encourages these acts. That doesn't seem controversial or even especially original today, but when you look at the prominent Vietnam War movies of the time, the ones that came before this tactfully avoided showing troops committing acts that made them the monsters—instead, they were often the victims. Here they are that as well, but in allowing for that duality the movie had a more original, and I think controversial, stance at the time.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryThe biggest exception being Apocalypse Now, I agree with your assessment on the controversy here.  Stone avoids hitting any nerves by explicitly removing any overt political element of the war.  There’s not a politicized element to the proceedings at all and, to put it lightly, considering how heated debate over the war got that’s impressive in its own right.  No President is mentioned, almost zero news back home, and the only glimpse outside the world comes from one line of dialogue where a soldier incredulously notes that American forces are in Ecuador now.  Stinging?  Yes, but the whole film is brutal in presentation and subtle enough to avoid any real controversy.Seductive violence

How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryIn portraying Vietnam with a complexity that challenged how it was being portrayed in films of the time—from the “American forces are always glorious saviors always” bravado of The Green Berets to the quiet “war destroys lives” acceptance of The Deer Hunter. It doesn't fit into the neatly liberal-minded sentiments of most of the movies that criticized the war by showing its negative effects, because it implicates the audience in the horrors the characters commit. We don't condone them, but we're forced to understand them, and that's a level of uncomfortable even The Deer Hunter barely touched.

There's a brave scene toward the end of the movie, in the morning following that last horrifying night battle, where one character kills another. On the surface it seems like an easy way to resolve a conflict that's run the whole length of the film—really what it's doing so well is making the act of sane, calculated, cold-blooded murder (however justified one may try to argue it being) an act that seems reasonable. In finally engaging with Vietnam and acknowledging it with that level of complexity, I think it may have helped to create the zeitgeist.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryI’m glad that you mentioned The Green Berets because Stone crafted this film partly because his combat experience, as we see, was the opposite of the glorious troops that John Wayne commanded.  I also like the way that you are approaching it in terms of Stone creating a zeitgeist instead of reflecting one.  He was not a young filmmaker by this point but it was only his third feature-film (discounting Seizure! which is a wish I will respect).  The jump in quality was so great and the commentary so focused that the zeitgeist created itself with press and awards galore.  Heck, Platoon was so popular a video game was made from it that actually features a series of soldiers dying and taking their dead comrade's place while firing into a void.  Sure it’s a cash-in but I’m surprised they respected Platoon so much that they kept the fatalism intact.Clearly a man of many dimensions

That may be interesting, but is it any good?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThe flaws aside—Charlie Sheen's atrocious acting, his borderline-hilarious voiceover, and Tom Berenger's unfortunately one dimensional character with his Charlie-Sheen's-acting-esque face—I think the power of the battle scenes and what they imply is undeniable, which puts it firmly in “good” territory for me.


Tiny Andrew CommentaryI don’t think there’s much of a point to giving Berenger another dimension.  He’s single-mindedly obsessed with killing and maintaining blatant unofficial authority.  Berenger executes that with brutal efficiency.  Sheen, we’ve expounded on, is terrible but that’s not nearly enough to overwhelm every other perfect aspect of this movie - it's absolutely essential.

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Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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