Thursday, January 23, 2014

#9 - Platoon (1986)




BACK-STORY:  “Platoon” is the semi-autobiographical account of Oliver Stone’s experiences in Vietnam.  It came out seven years after “Apocalypse Now” and was followed soon after by “Full Metal Jacket” and “Hamburger Hill”.  More than those other films, it impacted the movie-going public and Vietnam War veterans.  It was cathartic.  It became the definitive Vietnam War movie.  The film was a big hit with audiences and most critics.  Produced for only $6 million, it made $138 million.  It was awarded the Best Picture Oscar and also won for Director, Sound Mixing, and Editing.  It was nominated for Original Score and Cinematography.  Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger got Supporting Actor nods.  The movie is ranked #86 on AFI’s Top 100 list.  The shooting was done in the Philippines (the Pentagon refused to support the film) and took only 54 days.  The film was shot in sequence and this began immediately after the boot camp for the actors.  Stone meant the film to be a counter to John Wayne’s “Green Berets”.

OPENING:  The film begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes:  “Rejoice O young men in thy youth…”  (The loss of youthful innocence is a major theme.)  Cherries, including Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), come out of the womb of a transport plane and are confronted by body bags.  “All right you cheese dicks, welcome to the Nam.  Follow me.”  We know we are in for a metaphor-laden movie when our rookie warriors are sneered at knowingly by some vets.

Chris Taylor (Charle Sheen) wondering
why he came to the Nam
SUMMARY:  It is 1967 and Bravo Company, 25th Infantry is stationed near the Cambodian border.  The platoon is humping through some thick jungle.  Taylor is on point and suffering from heat exhaustion.  Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) does not care.  Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) does.  Dynamic established.  Taylor’s narration explains that he is a rich college boy who dropped out to find himself and do his patriotic duty.

Barnes (Tome Berenger) and Elias (Willem Dafoe)
discuss which is better - marijuana or whiskey
                In camp, the men do assorted soldier stuff.  Setting up claymores and trip flares, caring for their feet, cleaning weapons, digging fox holes.  A command conference makes it clear that Barnes runs the platoon with the green Lt. Wolfe completely cowed.  A night ambush is assigned with Barnes in charge.  Before they go out, a fellow FNG shows Taylor a picture of his girl.  And he’s fat.  He also has “dead meat” stapled on his forehead.

                The ambush scene is our first inkling that we are in a new age of Vietnam War movies.  Taylor freezes on guard when the enemy morphs out of the foliage.  A wild firefight ensues with a friendly fire casualty, the killing of a wounded “gook”, and Taylor ending up with an M written on his forehead with blood.  Wow, I’ve read about all of this stuff.

                Taylor returns to find that the platoon is divided between the dopers (led by Elias) and the boozers (led by Barnes).  Doper bunker:  Ho Chi Minh poster and acid rock (“White Rabbit”)  Boozer hootch:  Confederate flag and country music (“Okie from Muskogee”)  The platoon is divided like America, get it?  Taylor pledges Phi Dopa Kappa.  “The worm has definitely turned for [him].”

                The seemingly dysfunctional unit goes back out into the bush and finds a tunnel complex.  Elias plays tunnel rat so you know that although he is a hippie, he is not a pacifist.  You can cut the foreboding with a k-bar.  The intercutting enhances this.  A booby trap and a mutilation death put the men in a foul mood when they storm into the nearby ville.  The huge amount of rice and cache of weapons clearly indicate the villagers are pro-VC.  Barnes insists they admit it verbally for the record which results in a mini-My Lai and one kick ass fight between Sgt. Good and Sgt. Evil.  Check out the acting by the villagers.  None are professionals.  Significantly, Taylor goes to the brink, but pulls back.  He turns from the dark side by stopping a rape resulting in the jibes that “she’s just a dink” and “you don’t belong in the ‘Nam”.  The platoon caringly shepherd the relocatees with the burning ville as a fiery background.  The schizophrenic nature of the war on display.

Barnes wins a heart and mind
                The platoon is now further divided between the Barnes and Elias supporters.  Elias plans to prefer charges against Barnes and Capt. Harris (a dyed Dale Dye) promises to get to the bottom of it.  The war must go on and the unit is sent into an enemy complex.  This time the bunker is occupied and all Hell breaks loose.  Taylor has come full circle as a warrior and combat euphoria kicks in.  Wolfe calls in a “fucked up fire mission” that results in friendly fire.  That’s what you get when you let the LT run his platoon.  Barnes decides that military justice is not for him and Elias gets one of the best cinematic demises.  Previous references to him being a “water walker” and thinking he’s “Jesus fucking Christ” culminate in his cruciform death.  (Check out the wires so Dafoe can set off the squibs - which ended up malfunctioning.) 
In case you did not figure it out -
he's Christlike

Taylor knows the role Barnes played in Elias’ death.  Barnes confronts Taylor in the bong bunker and sneers that Elias was a troublemaking cog in his machine.  “There’s the way it ought to be and there’s the way it is.”  Barnes points out that he is “reality” and puts an exclamation point on it by scarring Taylor (who had brought naïve umbrage to a knife fight.
 
It’s search and destroy time again as the platoon is part of a multi-company operation.  They are the bait.  The enemy swarm comes after dark and the fighting is lit by flares.  The combat is intense and all the main characters get their moments in the flickering light.  Bunny (Kevin Dillon) mentions Audie Murphy, but it’s actually Taylor who emulates him.  Oliver Stone makes a brief cameo as the company commander and sapper magnet.  Things get so hairy with “zips in the wire” that Harris calls in “snake and nape” on their position.  “It’s a lovely fucking war.”

Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) as Audie Murphy (Audie Murphy)
 
CLOSING:   Morning breaks with a corpse strewn landscape.  Taylor finds the wounded Barnes and decides military justice is not for him either.  The confrontation book-ends the Barnes/Elias trial settlement.  We never get to find out if Dale Dye was prepping for his role in “Casualties of War”.  It’s clean-up time as reinforcements arrive led by a tank with a Nazi flag on it. (Give it a rest, Stone!)  Taylor is medevaced along with Francis (with his bandage on the opposite thigh from his self-inflicted wound).  The narration concludes with “we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves and the enemy was in us.”  He refers to the battle for his soul between Barnes and Elias  (which is weird because he was clearly an Elias accolyte the whole time).  Those who survived the war have an obligation to teach.  (One way to teach is to make a movie about the war.)  The film concludes with a dedication to the men who fought and died in Vietnam.  (Some of whom have thanked Stone and others of whom have not.)

Killing an American with an AK-47 means you
can not be held responsible by American justice
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  It made a lot of money and it could not have been all from men.  Although it is definitely a guy film, it is a master work on the subject of Vietnam and should be seen by most Americans.  The battle scenes are violent and graphic, but not stomach-turning.  There is only one significant female character and she exits rather suddenly.  There is no romantic subplot intended to attract females. I have noticed that modern war movies have moved away from that sexist trope.  Thank God.  You’ve come a long way, baby.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The film does not claim to be a true story, although Stone made no secret of it being autobiographical in spots.  Stone was a grunt along the Cambodian border in 1967.  Taylor stands in for him.  The narration reflects Stone’s situation when he entered the service.  The letters to his grandmother appear to be at least paraphrases of the young Stone’s experiences and attitudes.  The characters in his screenplay are supposedly based on several of his mates in the several platoons he was in.  There are obviously some composite characters which is standard for a film of this type.  Barnes and Elias were based on two of Stone’s sergeants, but they were not in the same platoon.  Stone did stop a rape as did Taylor and he was wounded in the neck in his first ambush, but the rest of the vignettes can be classified as based on incidents that happened to someone somewhere.

                The accuracy comes in the realism.  Stone was very serious in getting the details right.  For that reason, he brought in Dale Dye as his main technical adviser and Dye’s input was impactful.  Significantly, Dye tried to rein in some of Stone’s creative license (ex.  drug use in the field) – unsuccessfully by the way.  I think “Platoon” was the first use of his boot camp method of training actors to realistically portray soldiers.  This is another reason why “Platoon” was significant in the development of the VioLingo school of war movies.  With Stone and Dye working together, the film is a tutorial on grunt life in Vietnam.  Here is a list of facts you can learn from the movie that will save you from reading the numerous books I have read on the war:

1.         Replacement soldiers (i.e. Cherries) were treated like dirt.
2.        Sergeants ran the platoons.
3.        Every soldier knew how many days that they had left in their tour.
4.        If a Vietnamese civilian ran, it was assumed they were the enemy and you could shoot them.
5.        Villages were burned if they were considered sympathetic to the Communists.
6.        Some soldiers injured themselves to get out of combat.
7.        Volunteers felt they were fighting for our society and freedom.
8.        Latrine waste was burned using kerosene.
9.        Drug use was common in rear areas.
10.     Young Americans sometimes committed atrocities due to stress or revenge.
11.     The Vietnam War gave some sociopaths an outlet.

CRITIQUE:  I can still recall the impact “Platoon” had when it was released.  Numerous articles examined the effect the film had on the Vietnam veteran community.  Many vets claimed it was as close as anyone had gotten to what they had gone through.  It was cathartic for many and caused many to open up for the first time.  Most critics latched on to the film as the first true depiction of the war.  “Platoon” became the first combat film to win Best Picture since “All Quiet on the Western Front”.  Add to this the effect it had on the public in general.  The entertaining nature of the film made it the definitive portrayal of the war for average Americans.  Since that initial onslaught, the film has had a polarizing effect and has strong detractors. 

                Stone can claim truthfully that he is a much better director now than he was in 1986, but this is still his opus.  It was personal for him and the passion shows.  You can fault the agenda, but not the craftsmanship.  The movie had a low budget and no support from the Pentagon (no surprise there).  It does not show.  Dye made sure the details were correct.  The gear is spot on and the behavior, language, and life of the men are realistic.  Stone got enough military equipment from the Philippine government to give the film some scale.  The cinematography is not obstrusive and exchews bells and whistles.  However, the night scenes in particular are amazing and show boldness in a genre that often avoids night actions.  The music is memorable, especially the usage of “Adagio for Strings”.  No one who has seen the movie can hear the tune without flashing back to the movie.  In contrast to that, there are long stretches where there is no music.  For instance, the final battle.  Stone does not dilute the battle noises with mood setting background music.  The three battle scenes are among the best in war movie history.  Edge of your seat.  The movie reminds of "Glory" by mixing the human interaction with great combat.

They had to burn the village in order to save it.
 
                “Platoon” on the surface seems to be your typical dysfunctional heterogeneous small unit movie.  Stone does use the platoon to delve into the theme of divisiveness, but this is not a WWII or Korean War movie where each member represents an archetype.  No one is from Brooklyn, Italian, a ladies man, a hick, etc.  The dysfunction  is created by the division between the dopers and the boozers.  There is no bonding on the horizon.  For this reason, the actors are not acting out stereotypes.  Instead, they are written as individuals.  Because each is a moon in either the Barnes or the Elias orbit, character development is subtle.  The movie rewards repeat viewings to really get to know the men.  A character like Lerner (Johnny Depp) can get lost in the tumult.  With that said, the acting is top notch.  The ensemble is of up-and-comers and they show great promise.  Sheen evinces the proper naivete and eventual loss of innocence.  The showier roles of Elias and Barnes are nailed by Dafoe and Barnes (both of whom were nominated for Best Supporting Actor; both robbed by Michael Caine for “Hannah and Her Sisters”).  Special mention to the two most loathsome characters:  Dillon as the psychopath Bunny and John McGinley as the ass-kisser O’Neill.  All of them went through Dye’s boot camp and their performances reflect immersion over the usual emoting.  They are not playing soldier, they seem to be soldiers.

I just had to mention the awesomely named Rahr
played by Anthony Quinn's son Francesco
                What sets the film apart from the standard war film is the metaphors.  Stone is not subtle in his themes.  Barnes and the boozers represent the right wingers in America during the war.  Elias and the dopers represent the doves.  Within this metaphor is Barnes as the win at all costs warrior and Elias is the disillusioned believer who now feels the war is unwinnable.  Most of the platoon represents the lower class cannon fodder sent by rich people to fight their ideological war.  Taylor stands out as the rarer idealistic volunteer fighting out of duty to American society.  Much of this is heavy-handed, but Stone does not seem to care about making it subliminal.  For example, the boozers play poker (competition) while the dopers do singalongs (cooperation).  By the way, I have seen the deleted scenes and the movie could have been much more bludgeoning.

                The movie flows smoothly.  This is partly due to the fact that it was shot sequentially.  The plot moves from soldier life to combat in an ebb and flow manner.  The dialogue is a strength and the soldier talk is not dumbed down for the average viewer.  “Snake and nape”?  Anyone good at context clues should not be too lost.

CONCLUSION:   To do this review, I watched the movie (for the fifth time, at least) and Stone’s commentary version and Dye’s take on the film.  Plus the making-of documentary and the other extras.  All this confirmed my original view when I saw the movie in a theater in 1986.  This is a great movie and still the best Vietnam War movie.  This is coming from a reviewer who admires all the other serious contenders (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket).  I have to say that in the case of Vietnam War movies, Military History magazine has not upset me.


My favorite war movie character





                I am aware that there are some ranters against the movie.  Stone is partly to blame by making comments about it being the realistic depiction of the war, instead of a realistic depiction of the war.  Some veterans and pro-war types took offense to the negative portrayal of the soldiers and their actions.  They assume that Stone was implying the platoon was typical.  Stone was not apologetic about that impression.  On the other hand, anyone who has argued that the incidents and personality types did not exist in Vietnam is being naïve.  For instance, My Lai did happen and the incident in the movie was nowhere near the scale of that event.  Besides, I do not feel the movie demonizes the American soldier in Vietnam.  I cannot imagine people spitting on vets coming out of theaters. Empathy must have been the most common emotion.
 
             "Platoon" deserves to be in the Top 10.  I think the editors of Military History magazine put a premium on the importance of the choices.  Unfortunately, some of the films that they deem important are not very good.  "Platoon" is not only very entertaining and admirably realistic, but it is clearly an important movie. 

RATINGS

ACTING  =  A
ACTION  =  8/10
ACCURACY  =  B
REALISM  =  B
PLOT  =  A

GRADE =  A+

the trailer

 
the ambush scene
 








  

3 comments:

  1. That is an awesome review. Platoon is definitely one of the movies that had a powerful impact on me when I first saw it, and did not lose anything in later viewings. Stone has had his ups and downs but Platoon is an excellent film.

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  2. the war movie buffJanuary 28, 2014 at 8:18 AM

    Thanks. I am not a big Stone fan (partly due to the egregious JFK). Of his other films, I only like Wall Street and Born on the 4th of July.

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