Release Date: December 19th, 1986 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Oliver Stone Actors: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Tony Todd, John C. McGinley, Kevin Dillon, Forest Whitaker, Keith David, Johnny Depp
latoon” opens with new recruits (fresh meat) clamoring out of transports to gaze disconcertedly at body bags. It’s Vietnam and it’s hell. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) trades glances with an older, weathered, battle-hardened soldier leaving the war zone, mirroring the horrors he’s about to encounter and the toll it will take on his soul. In September 1967, the 25th Infantry of Bravo Company moves somewhere near the Cambodian border, with Taylor consternated over the heat, humidity, bugs, smell of decaying flesh, and weighty gear. Nobody tells him anything and nobody wants to know his name; it’s barely been a week since he deployed and, in letters to his grandmother (which doubles as narration), he admits he’s made a mistake – righteously trying to serve his country without examining the personal consequences of his involvement.
After his first ambush mission goes awry, and Taylor takes a grazing shot to the neck, he returns to base camp to recover. There, he participates in a few recreational activities, including downing beer, puffing vigorously on cigarettes, and smoking weed. Camerawork is used to create an appropriately hallucinogenic effect. By the start of the new year, Taylor has seen the brunt of the atrocities. But it isn’t until the platoon is tasked with burning down a farming village that he begins to understand the massive rift between wartime viewpoints; fighting the enemy, inhuman execution, and plain murder intermingle in the minds of the warriors. Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) becomes a mentor when he stands against the senseless slaughtering of innocents; Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), on the opposite end of the spectrum, becomes problematic when he uncaringly dispatches an elderly Vietnamese woman.
Although Chris loses his temper earlier in the village, it’s Bunny (Kevin Dillon) who angrily and spontaneously brains a one-legged villager. The platoon is conflicted and divided: many approve of Barnes’ recklessness and lawlessness, while Taylor’s group of comrades side with Elias’ insistence on common decency, even when no one is around to police for good behavior. The sergeants – symbolic fathers to conflictingly mentor Chris – personify the two opposing forces of good and evil or right and wrong, if such things can be defined in the midst of warfare.
A new lieutenant (Mark Moses) fails to earn the respect of his men, miscommunication and hasty decisions result in friendly fire casualties, and soldiers quarrel amongst themselves over concepts like “illegal killing,” a term that seems meaningless in the chaos and panic of combat. There’s no glorifying the war here – the deaths are not glamorous or dramatic, despite plenty of suspense, action, firefights, and explosions. The film dares to show an explicitly unpleasant side of military engagement, as well as one that focuses not on a particular battle, mission, or accomplishment, but rather on the lack thereof. “Platoon” spans the course of one soldier’s tour, delving into the inner workings of not only his mentality and cooperation, but also the way each member of his squad interacts. It studies every angle of involvement except victory; exiting the war alive is the only success and it’s a goal far greater than domination. As Taylor suggests, many of his fellow soldiers don’t even know what they’re fighting for.
Youth, innocence, and ignorance are wrapped up together and put under the stresses of armed conflict. It’s extremely violent and brutal, yet tragically realistic. Deference, fear, rank, age, racism, politics, and the shifting values of human life interfere with Taylor’s ability to simply follow orders. He acts and reacts as if guided by training, but realizes that what happens in Vietnam doesn’t transcend to his hopeful return to normalcy – the consequences of revenge and survival remain unaccounted for once he’s removed from the battlefield. His narration almost poetically encompasses the widespread feeling of uncertainty, regret, and anarchy experienced by partakers, and the notable, outstanding cast brings many of the more scrutinized feelings into sharper focus. Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” with its unusual time signature and sustained notes, is practically a character of its own (this is its most famous use on film), bringing a mournful, somber, heartfelt tone to the stormy, nonstop disorder of war – in director Oliver Stone’s finest film (and winner of the 1986 Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director).
– Mike Massie