Oliver Stone’s Platoon remains the pinnacle of his directorial career and with good reason. Presenting the grunt’s eye view of the Vietnam War, this is definitely a movie that could only have been made by someone who had been there. Even if you disagree with Stone’s politics and find fault with his later work, it’s hard to dispute the sincerity and brutal honesty he brings to this film.
The movie begins in late 1967 with the arrival of a planeload of fresh replacement soldiers, including Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), an idealistic young man who dropped out of college to join the Army, volunteering for combat duty in Vietnam. He’s assigned to platoon that is ostensibly under the command of Lt. Wolfe (Mark Moses) but which is really run by Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), a quite literally battle-scarred veteran of multiple tours of duty, who is believed by the men to be virtually indestructible. Running Chris’ squad is the more humanistic Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe).
An unprepared Taylor is plunged almost instantly into combat and Stone is especially skilled at showing Vietnam as a disorienting chamber of horrors. We, the audience, emphasize instantly with Chris’ plight because we are just as confused as he is.
The raw recruit finds a platoon divided into two factions, one loyal to Elias and the other to Barnes. Elias’ group escapes from the war through smoking pot and opium and listening to soul music while Barnes’ men drink beer and listen to country music. It’s a slightly ham-handed device but it’s also an effective shorthand for showing not only the different way that men dealt with the numbing horror around them but also setting up what the movie calls the war for Chris Taylor’s soul.
While the film has a large cast that tends to blur together, mostly because many of them die before the movie is half over, a few characters standout. Sgt. O’Reilly (John C. McGinley) is a fatalistic veteran who attaches himself to Barnes in the hope that Barnes’ apparent invincibility will rub off on him. Keith David and a young Forest Whitaker are King and Big Harold, respectively, a couple of black soldiers who take pity and befriend the confused suburban kid thrust into their midst.
The first part of the film builds up to an incident in a Vietnamese village in which the platoon, tired and on edge after the death of a several members, take out their frustrations on the villagers. It stops well short of the being another My Lai massacre, but Barnes does shoot a woman in cold blood. An incensed Elias wants him charged with murder but the company commander (Dale Dye) needs the veteran sergeant in the field. This lets the resentments fester within the platoon and leads to a deadly confrontation between the two sergeants.
Critics of the film have charged that Stone portrays American soldiers as soulless killers but the reality is more complicated than that. The film portrays two possible reactions to a war with no clearly defined battle lines and no easily discernible goals: retreat from reality like Elias or completely submerge your humanity like Barnes. These impulses tug Pvt. Taylor in different directions and his ultimate reaction seems to mix the two possibilities together.
As Chris, Charlie Sheen steps out of his Brat Pack image and gives what is arguably the performance of his career. Voice-overs in which Taylor writes home to his grandmother, especially given Sheen’s vocal resemblance to his father, might put you in mind of Apocalypse Now, but the device is used sparingly. Tom Berenger’s portrayal of Barnes makes him menacing and soulless without turning him into a caricature. Willem Dafoe has the less showy role but brings a sort of sad, blissed-out humanity to Sgt. Elias.
The combat scenes throw most Hollywood conventions over the side. The enemy is rarely seen and there is little logic or order to the battlefield. Death can come from virtually any direction. These are the scenes are let you know that the filmmaker has some knowledge of the real deal. Stone shows exceptional skill at making us feel the confusion and terror he no doubt felt himself.
Since this movie, the Vietnam war has been a fixture in Stone’s work and has been the subject, in one way or another, of no less than four of his subsequent films. None of these, however, have been as effective as Platoon. In some cases, like JFK, he lets his fixation on Vietnam run away with him and it adversely affects the movie. With Platoon, however, Stone made his mark as a great filmmaker and, even if he never reaches these heights again, he deserves to be remembered for this one movie.