Platoon

September 14, 2011

Dafoe and Berenger: Platoon's Homeric Gods

In the current issue of American Film magazine, writer-director Oliver Stone describes himself in Vietnam in 1967: “(A) solitary, wide-eyed youth standing under those raggedy Asiatic clouds, looking out at the sea with his fantasies of Lord Jim and Julie Christie, an anonymous infantryman…and I knew that someday, somehow, I would write my story and join the flow of time.”

Almost 20 years later, Stone’s time has come. His new film, Platoon, tells the straightest, truest Vietnam story of any film yet. He served 15 months as an infantryman in the war, was wounded a couple of times, and won the Bronze Star. The movie is about the kinds of men he served with, and covers a year’s service through the eyes of a raw recruit.

From the opening images of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arriving in the yellowish haze of Southeast Asia, the film tracks the relentless march of his platoon. Harrowing jungle attacks are alternated with rests at base, until the year is over. In its gritty, riveting action, Platoon is reminiscent of such classic war movies as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet and Anthony Mann’s Men in War.

Part of Stone’s intent, clearly, is to provide an immediate sense that this is the way it was. In this, he succeeds spectacularly; the movie has the authentic feel that qualifies it as a work of someone who’s been there. (Filming took place in the Philippines.)

But Stone has also provided a mythic backbone to Taylor’s coming-of-age story. It lies in the good vs. evil struggle between two sergeants in the platoon—”Homeric gods,” as Stone has described them. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is brutal and amoral; “Our Ahab” Taylor calls him at one point, when the platoon destroys a My Lai-like village in insane retribution for sabotage, the film’s most horrifying sequence.

The other sergeant, Elias (Willem Dafoe), is poetic, almost divine. Despite the differences between them, however, Stone draws no simple conclusions. Barnes may be a black presence, but he repeatedly proves himself a good soldier who saves the lives of his men.

The entire film sustains this ambiguity. Platoon is no easy anti-war screed; Stone knows the issue is too complex for that. There are no cheap shots here—even the generals, the apparently lily-livered lieutenant and the kill-happy grunts have their moments of self-realization. They are all at sea in this nightmare.

The actors who play them are magnificent. Even the small, fleeting roles are finely etched. Sheen is appropriately dazed as the unformed youth (he is the son of Martin Sheen, who played the lead in Francis Coppola’s Vietnam film Apocalypse Now). Berenger, who played the TV star in The Big Chill, is a limited actor, but he transcends himself as the scarred Barnes, especially in the scene where he confronts the angry soldiers: “You smoke this dope t’escape reality?…I am reality.”

Dafoe, previously stuck with playing villains (as in To Live and Die in L.A.) because of his stark features, is superb as the angelic Elias. He brings an odd mystery to the role, a hinting at past unspoken experiences that give shading to his heroic character.

With all Stone’s capacity for subtlety, he also has a tendency to go too far. This was more evident in last year’s vivid Salvador than here, although it might be said that the narration in Platoon, in the form of Taylor’s letters home, may state too much that has already been shown. But for the most part, the film is a personal triumph. Stone can use it; since winning the best screenplay Oscar in 1977 for Midnight Express (a movie directed by someone else), he’s wandered around the Hollywood fringes. Now, via the circuitous route of his own past, he seems to have finished his odyssey.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

I haven’t seen the film in a long time, although I recall getting to see it twice before I wrote about it. Stone was never this on-point again, but I continue to have a soft spot for his excessive tendencies—the grandness suggested in the opening quote. When I interviewed him (he did a press tour in Seattle for World Trade Center), he was pleased that I appreciated The Hand, his pre-respectability horror film, which somehow did not surprise me. Platoonis small and big at the same time, a tricky act, passionately achieved.


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