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Platoon (1986)::rating::4.5::rating::4.5

Platoon isn’t so much about the loss of innocence as the wholesale devastation of it.  The opening scene depicts something familiar in war epics:  A transport of clean-shaven, clueless teenagers debark into a jungle hellscape they could never imagine:  Black soot-smoke blocks out the sun.  The very ground mixes into a muck of mud and blood.  Corpses are folded into bags and stacked like firewood.  Some of those swollen, mangled bodies had once stepped off this same transport, wild-eyed and ready.  Now, they’re another subtraction in the grisly arithmetic of war.  For the young men about to replace them in that inferno, their innocence won’t just be taken away.  It will be napalmed from the Earth.

Loosely based on writer-director Oliver Stone’s own experience, Platoon centers on Chris (Charlie Sheen).  He is Stone’s proxy: A smart, privileged kid who naively enlists for Vietnam.  Chris bundles his bewildered thoughts into letters to his grandmother, and his words bely an instant misery.  Life in the infantry is an unholy blend of carnage and chaos; life in the jungle itself is a sticky slog of mosquitos, leaches, and fire ants.  By the end of his first day, Chris is already counting down to go home.

During the inevitable tedium, Chris gets to know his fellow grunts.  He falls in with a secret clique of stoners, led by Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe).  The two men bond, with Elias becoming something of a mentor.  As his tour unfolds, Chris will often turn to marijuana to blunt the manic waves of boredom and terror.

Chris also finds himself drawn to Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), who acts as polar opposite to the mellow, introspective Elias:  Barnes is a ruthless, temperamental killing machine.  His every word and deed seem molded to wipe out as many Viet Cong as possible.  This puts him on a high wire between being a brilliantly efficient war hero, and a pure psychopath destined for a lifetime in the stockade.

It’s not long before we see where Barnes will fall.  The platoon happens upon a shambling village, primarily populated by elderly women and children.  Some vague evidence suggests the enemy might’ve been here recently.  They might even be hiding now.  To make the situation worse, the American troops were just ambushed, suffering many casualties.  Tempers run high.  This puts Barnes in no mood for diplomacy.  He takes a page from the Gestapo playbook and begins massacring the villagers until someone volunteers information.

I won’t give away what happens, except to say a physical and moral battle erupts between Barnes and Elias.  Chris shares some personality traits with Barnes, which is probably frightens him into siding with Elias.  The balance of the film deals with the philosophical civil war that flares within the platoon, with the men divided between the two sergeants.

Platoon inevitably invites comparison to The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, the other Oscar-winning Vietnam epics of its era.  Based solely on emotional aesthetic, there are striking similarities.  All three films portray war as a dehumanizing and demoralizing experience, leaving its survivors to cling to the detritus of their shattered lives.  But those other two movies paint their tragedies on a sprawling canvas, with the broader socio-political implications of the war supplying the matte background:  Apocalypse Now featured a high-ranking officer, lost in the spiritual weeds and determined to bring the world into Hell with him.  The Deer Hunter was as much about coming home as it was going to war, with soldiers acclimating to a society that didn’t know what to do with them.

That’s where Platoon is different.  We live in Chris’s world, and nowhere else.  Stone and legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson keep things tight:  When Chris dives into a foxhole or wades through a sticky swamp, we’re usually right there on his hip.  There are no generals in a war room or flashbacks to high school.  Platoon lives in the moment, just like its protagonist.  Even when the narrative broadens to Barnes and Elias, we see both men through Chris’s eyes.  Stone clearly aims to tell the story of his war on the ground.  The result is a resounding success–an epic of uncomfortable intimacy.

Nothing about that approach would work without incredible acting.  I never thought these words would clack from my keyboard, but a-here we go:  Charlie Sheen probably should’ve been nominated for an Oscar here.  He takes Chris from an awkwardly green recruit to the tattered and battered wreck of human being, with scars that will only grow darker and deeper.  (Sheen’s increasingly shaky narration evokes his father’s haggard voiceover in Apocalypse Now.)  It’s an impressive performance that hints at the dramatic career Sheen might’ve had.

Still, when people think of Platoon, they probably conjure images of Dafoe and Berenger, playing the movie’s moral yin and yang.  Berenger’s Barnes is an odious villain with a fractured psyche.  He’s a man who can’t live without a war, but can barely function within it.  It’s a testament to how unhinged Berenger is that Willem Dafoe can play the more normal character.  Elias represents the platoon’s final shreds of decency–the final reminder these were once boys who came from somewhere.  If and when he goes, the soul of the unit will go with him.

For all its accolades, Platoon isn’t quite perfect.  If I’m going to pick nits, Stone leans a little too heavily on Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which underlines the melodrama when it’s not needed.  Further, Sheen’s narration lacks the flair of Apocalypse Now.  Stone makes his point–Chris is beat down and frustrated–but it grows repetitive after a while.  With that said, Platoon is one of the best war films ever made.  It’s a gripping, sobering experience that hits like a ten-pound sledge.  The War in Vietnam stripped the innocence from the men who fought, and from the country that sent them there.  In many ways, neither will ever get them back again.

120 min.  R.  HBOMax.


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