Screenplay : Oliver Stone
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1986
Stars : Tom Berenger (Barnes), Willem Dafoe (Elias), Charlie Sheen (Chris Taylor), Forest Whitaker (Big Harold), Francesco Quinn (Rhah), John C. McGinley (Red O'Neill), Richard Edson (Sal), Kevin Dillon (Bunny), Reggie Johnson (Junior), Keith David (King), Johnny Depp (Lerner), Mark Moses (Lt. Wolfe)
Despite the omnipresence of Vietnam in the American household via television throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, the motion picture industry wouldn't deal directly with the unpopular war, standing in stark contrast to the World War II era in which dozens of war pictures were released during American involvement between1941 and 1945. With the exception of John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968), a hopelessly jingoistic and defensive attempt to adapt the successful formula that had fueled so many World War II pictures to the situation in Vietnam, no major American movie was made during the war or immediately following it.
Aside from a few exploitation road pictures that featured embittered Vietnam veterans as motorcycle outlaws and metaphorical Westerns like Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue (1970) that drew harsh parallels between American treatment of the Vietnamese and Native Americans, there was little mention of Vietnam at the movies. Even by the end of the 1970s, Hollywood could only deal with Vietnam in indirect terms, either using the war as a backdrop or symbol in films like The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) or dealing with the plight of returning veterans in films like Coming Home (1978) and First Blood (1982).
Thus, it is of little surprise that it took Oliver Stone over a decade to get Platoon made. Based directly on his combat experiences in 1967, Platoon was the first major American film to deal explicitly with the experience of ground soldiers in Vietnam. When the film hit theaters, it effectively shocked American viewers out of the complacency of the conservative Reagan years, reminding them forcibly of the costs of the Vietnam war and the fallibility of the United States as a military power and moral authority. Platoon went on to near-unanimous critical acclaim and four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Stone, who was still primarily known as a screenwriter of lurid pulp like Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983), even though he had already flexed his political filmmaking chops earlier in 1986 with the little-seen Salvador.
Platoon certainly deserved the praise it received, especially in its daring to dig deep into an experience that most would like to forget. It set a new bar for verisimilitude in the war film, with Stone's personal experience fueling a grunt's eye view of a war that made no sense to anyone. Platoon is a film of confusion and violence, where right and wrong are hopelessly intertwined and confused.
Yet, there is an inner tension in Platoon that weakens what would have otherwise been an unqualified masterpiece. The problem is that Stone's use of gritty realism runs against the grain of his other narrative techniques, especially his mythical notions of good and evil and the use of a voice-over narration to spell out the film's meaning. Platoon is a radical piece of realistic filmmaking weighted down by awkwardly conventional narrative devices.
The most obvious and troublesome is Stone's use of narration. The main character is a young private named Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), whose similarities to Stone in terms of character and experience are so intense that he moves beyond the role of Stone's narrative surrogate into purely autobiographical territory. This may be part of the problem because Stone has difficulty distinguishing between his own experience and what makes for good cinema. When Stone was in Vietnam, he was on the outs with his parents, so he wrote letters home to his grandmother. In the film, Taylor does the same thing, and the florid, explanatory prose of his letters becomes the narration. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the narration is redundant in that it simply spells out what a discerning viewer could take away from the action. Thus, Stone sells his own storytelling abilities short by having Taylor declare near the end, "I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves," something that has been readily obvious throughout the film.
Much of the story revolves around two sergeants who lead Taylor's platoon and become his dueling father figures: Staff Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), an angry, scarred survivor who strikes fear in everyone, and Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), who functions as the platoon's larger conscience and spiritual leader. Both Berenger and Dafoe turn in excellent performances, taking their characters beyond the symbolic archetypes established in Stone's screenplay and turning them into fully embodied human beings who have each been damaged by war, but responded and evolved in vastly different ways. They effectively make up for some of the obviousness in Stone's symbolism, which becomes a bit weighty at times. For instance, Elias's Christ-like stature is underlined in dialogue (one of the first lines we hear about him is someone complaining "The guy's in three years and he thinks he's Jesus f---ing Christ or something") and in imagery, as Elias dies after being betrayed by one of his own, his arms and face thrown up toward heaven.
In a way, Platoon becomes an inner battle between Stone the writer and Stone the director. Despite some of the flaws in the screenplay, every scene throughout the film is so well handled and intensely involving that together they outweigh the weaknesses of the narrative devices. Having experienced it himself, Stone is especially aware of the insanity of war in general, and Vietnam in particular. He gives the battle sequences a distressingly authentic sense of utter confusion, with rifle fire bursting from all sides, the enemy slipping in and out of darkness, and screams coming from men who may have been shot by one of their own. There's no larger sense of purpose or what exactly is at stake. We simply see then men march to various locations that all look the same, dig holes, and defend that ground.
Early on, Stone establishes the oppressive heat and humidity of the Vietnamese jungle, the omnipresence of ants and mosquitoes, the inability to see more than five feet in front of you through the thick foliage. This oppressiveness bleeds through into other scenes, such as the one that finds the platoon ransacking a Vietnamese village, frustration and anger leading them to horrible acts against men, women, and children who may or may not be the enemy.
The most telling moments of Platoon, though, are often the quietest. While this film has been rightly celebrated for its sense of realism and its ability to bring, at least to the extent possible on a movie screen, the sense of what it was like to be there to those who were not, one of Stone's greatest achievements is his careful depiction of the various men. From the insecure and sadistic Bunny (Kevin Dillon), to the cowardly and bullish O'Neill (John C. McGinley), to the good-hearted and noble King (Keith David), Stone manages to etch out more than two dozen sharply defined characters in less than two hours. Without them, Platoon would have simply been an exercise in you-are-there violence for its own sake. With them, it becomes a pained portrait of men driven to the brink of existence for reasons that no one could ever quite explain, even those who sent them there, which will always remain of the greatest tragedies of the Vietnam War.
|Platoon: Special Edition DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround |
Dolby 2.0 Surround
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
|Languages||English (5.1, 2.0), French (2.0), Spanish (1.0)|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by writer/director Oliver Stone|
Audio commentary by military technical advisor Dale Dye
Tour of the Inferno making-of documentary
"Behind the Scenes" photo gallery
Poster art gallery
Original theatrical trailer
|This new "Special Edition" DVD of Platoon uses the same anamorphic widescreen transfer previously seen on MGM's bare-bones DVD released last year, as opposed to the THX-certified nonanamorphic transfer that was used on the first-ever Platoon DVD from Live in 1997, which was a rehash of a transfer used for a 1995 Pioneer laser disc set. The new MGM transfer is the best of the bunch, as the anamorphic enhancement aids greatly in bringing out subtle details and nuances in the images. Overall, the image quality is very good, with excellent color and contrast. The jungles vibrate with a lush green hue in the direct sunlight, while the scenes shot deep in the jungle where little sunlight can penetrate have an inky blue texture. The night scenes have generally solid black levels that only occasionally betray film grain. Edge enhancement is minimal.|
|This disc features the same Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack that has appeared on previous DVD releases. It is a good transfer, although it shows some of the limitations inherent in expanding a 2.0 surround track into six discreet channels. Most of the soundtrack is kept in the front soundstage, with the surround channels utilized mostly for ambient effects, which are quite effective, especially during the opening-credits sequence. There are a few instances of directionality and imaging from the front to the rear, most of which sounds good. The extra channels enhance the impact of the battle sequences, as the sound coming from multiple directions adds to the sense of confusion and turmoil.|
| I guess the third time's the charm, as this DVD release of Platoon boasts the best set of supplements, porting all the extras from the Live DVD (and previous laser disc box set) with a few minor additions. |
First up are two screen-specific audio commentaries, both recorded in 1995. On the first commentary track, writer/director Oliver Stone spends much of the time discussing his own experiences as a combat soldier in Vietnam and how those experiences were worked into the fabric of the film. On the second track, military technical advisor Dale Dye, a retired Marine Corps captain who served 30 months in Vietnam, discusses in great detail the more technical aspects of making the film (with plenty of salty military jargon thrown in for good measure), which only serves to enhance one's appreciation of its verisimilitude.
Tour of the Inferno, a 53-minute documentary made in 1995 by Charles Kiselyak, who also produced documentaries for the DVD special editions of Wall Street and Salvador, is an excellent look at the making of Platoon. Kiselyak includes a great deal of actual news footage from the Vietnam War, which offers a solid illustration of how closely Stone was able to recreate the war for the film. Kiselyak rounded up almost all the principal actors for interviews, including Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, and John C. McGinley, as well as Stone and Dye.
To round out the supplements, the disc also includes the original theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen, three TV spots, a photo gallery of 27 behind-the-scenes photographs, and a brief gallery of poster art.
©2001 James Kendrick