“Platoon” is an intense but artistically distanced study of infantry life during the Vietnam War. Writer-director Oliver Stone seeks to immerse the audience totally in the nightmare of the United States’ misguided adventure, and manages to do so in a number of very effective scenes. But his set of dual impulses to stun the viewer with a brutal immediacy on the one hand, and to assert a reflective sense of artistic hindsight on the other dilutes whatever the film was meant to say, and takes the edge off its power. Commercial prospects look okay, better than that if it reaps some strong critical notices.
A Vietnam vet himself, Stone obviously had urgent personal reasons for making this picture, a fact that emerges instantly as green volunteer Charlie Sheen is plunged into the thick of action along the Cambodian border in late 1967.
Unit with which he’s placed is broken down into three rough categories of men: the macho, might-is-right tough guys led by heavily scarred Tom Berenger, the marginally more intelligent pot-heads whose ostensible figurehead is doubting war veteran Willem Dafoe, and assorted loners who just hope to get by watching out for their own skins.
Sheen soon is adopted by the dopers, and the long periods of waiting for action are fraught with dissension among the groups, a conflict epitomized by the rivalry between Berenger, the unreflective man of action, and Dafoe, a man of conscience who learns from experience.
Most traumatic sequence, which will shock many viewers through its expose of shameful and unprovoked American brutality, has the unit taking a tiny village where local farmers are suspected of hiding and aiding the Vietcong. The G.I.s mercilessly murder a young man, terrorize the entire populace, and gang rape a young girl, among other atrocities, treatment that provokes a complete split between the group’s two main factions and paves the way for further senselessness and tragedy.
Also striking is a long scene of the men at play, drinking, getting high and dancing, that nicely points up the unnatural aspects of this enforced all-male society, as well as the climactic, nocturnal battle which becomes a hideous slaughter.
Where Stone’s previous effort, “Salvador,” was hot and explosive, however, despite its flaws, “Platoon” is cool and never goes quite as far as one imagines it will. All the images in the earlier film seemed caught on the run under extreme pressure, while all the beautiful and undoubtedly difficult moving camera shots here express a sense of grace and precision that removes the visceral quality from the violence.
One is forcibly reminded of “Apocalypse Now” throughout because of the presence centerscreen of Charlie Sheen, who bears a remarkable resemblance here to his father, star of Francis Coppola’s epic.
Otherwise, however, “Platoon” in form resembles the taut, close-up army unit films of the 1950s such as Anthony Mann’s “Men in War,” Robert Aldrich’s “Attack!” and Samuel Fuller’s “The Steel Helmet” and “Fixed Bayonets.” Despite its violence and barrage of realistically dirty language, “Platoon” could have used some of these films’ ferociousness, starkness and unpretentiousness. The artistic veneer Stone applies, along with the simpy narration provided for Sheen in the way of letters to his grandmother, detract significantly from the work’s immediacy.
Nevertheless, there is plenty of good work to be found here, and pic certainly grabs the viewer by the collar in a way not found everyday in contemporary films. Working on an undoubtedly modest budget in the Philippines (lensing started just as President Aquino was replacing Marcos), team has mounted an impressive-looking production in all respects, although cinematographer Robert Richardson overdoes the filters at times. George Delerue’s plaintive score consists largely of a new arrangement of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”
Willem Dafoe comes close to stealing the picture as the sympathetic sergeant whose drugged state may even heighten his sensitivity to the insanity around him, and each of the members of the young cast all have their moments to shine.
Stone implicitly suggests the U.S. lost the war because of divisions within its own ranks and an unwillingness to go all the way, which leaves one with the tragic result that all the suffering and trauma was for nothing. Unfortunately, the analysis here goes no further than that; better if Stone had stuck to combat basic.
1986: Best Picture, Director, Sound, Editing.
Nominations: Best Supp. Actor (Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe), Original Screenplay, Cinematography