'80s Movie Month: "Platoon" Review

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A young recruit in Vietnam faces a moral crisis when confronted with the horrors of war and the duality of man.
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'80s Movie Month: "Platoon" Review

Rating: R (violence, profanity)
Length: 120 minutes
Release Date: December 24, 1986
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Genre: Action/Drama/War

"Platoon" tells the tale of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a college student who drops out to enlist in the army because he feels that poor people shouldn't be the only ones being sent to war. His first day in Vietnam, he sees the bodies of several dead soldiers awaiting transport back to the US, and he has to wonder if he's made a grave mistake coming halfway across the world just to make his point. He soon meets up with his new unit, which is bitterly divided, with neither side a good fit for him.

Taylor has to quickly acclimate himself to his new reality, which includes ants, snakes, enemy fire, and having to sleep with at least one of his eyes open. He is quickly run down and exhausted, but he tries very hard to retain some semblance of hope so that he doesn't get completely bogged down in battle. That puts him at odds with Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), a steely killing machine who is the de facto leader of roughly half the squad, men who also have ice water in their veins. The other half is led by Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), who is quick on the trigger but still has some of his morality left intact. He fights just as hard to keep that humanity as he does against the Viet Cong, which means he is basically fighting two wars at onceā€”one against the enemy and one against himself.

Taylor sides with Elias, especially after he saves a child from being murdered at the hands of Barnes. Taylor likewise saves a woman from being raped, but he knows deep down that saving one woman or child isn't going to stop the changes he feels himself going through. Can he and Elias keep some of their pre-war personality and hope, or will one or both succumb to the nightmare of guerilla warfare? There aren't many happy endings for this band of soldiers, especially when surviving means a completely different kind of ordeal.

When American troops go to war, they are usually well supported by folks at home and equally supported when they return from the battlefield. The Vietnam War was different because a very vocal part of the population didn't want the US involved in the war. Since the moment the troops began withdrawing from the region in the early 1970s, Hollywood has tried to make a movie that could capture the horrors of the war without getting too political. There are several standouts, such as "The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now," and "Full Metal Jacket." These are all fantastic movies, but "Platoon" captures something that those others don't, perhaps as a direct result of director Oliver Stone having served in Vietnam. The lead character does a voiceover throughout the film, and it feels as if Stone himself is talking to the audience instead of Sheen, confiding in the viewers about the atrocities he experienced.

Stone took a different approach to the filming of the battle scenes, deciding to use only the lighting that would have naturally occurred during a real battle under those same conditions. This means that during nighttime skirmishes, only moonlight, flares, and fires illuminated the scene, making everything look dark and murky. The audience feels like the enemy could jump out at any moment, which heightens the tension in the film dramatically. No other film captures the special horror that night battles bring the way "Platoon" does, which just adds to the many reasons why this film is superior to others. Stone knows all too well what happens in these situations, and he choose to capture them in their rawest, most frightening form. He was also wise enough to stay away from politicizing the war, which is quite a feat on its own, considering that Stone is usually quite vocal about his politics, both through his movies and in real life.

Stone won an Oscar for Best Director for this film, which helped cement him as one of the most talented and important directors of his day. With one confessionary film, he joined the ranks of more celebrated directors like Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese, giving him lots of clout in Hollywood. He did this all on a tiny $6.5 million budget, which makes this film that much more of an achievement. "Platoon" made Stone's career and that of lead actor Sheen, who finally stepped out of the shadow of his father Martin and brother Emilio Estevez. Even without these additional achievements, the movie is still a cinematic masterpiece that is terrifying, educational, shocking, and life-affirming all at once.

Rating: 4 out of 5