The Best Picture Winners: Platoon (1986)

| January 3, 2018

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just 58 days away and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving

Finding a measure of catharsis about The Vietnam War is a difficult proposition – it’s a subject that no one really wants to deal with, in particular Hollywood.  So, it is reasonable that no one wanted to tackle this subject until the war was over.  It was a contentious issue that – popular thinking dictated – no filmmaker would want to make and furthermore no audience would want to see.  Yet, when a few filmmakers took a chance, the results were sober, mature and thought-provoking.  In the waning years of the 1970s we got great portraits of the war in the form of Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, The Boys in Company C, The Odd Angry Shot (about Australian soldiers during the war) and the underrated, Go Tell the Spartans.

During the Reagan era, the pendulum seemed to shift, and we got films about Vietnam that were largely heroic (and silly) escapism.  This was the era of First Blood, Missing in Action and at least a dozen revenge fantasies about vets returning to Vietnam to free their buddies held as POWs.

Thankfully, Oliver Stone came around in the mid-80s to bring some sanity back to the subject.  Sober portraits of the Vietnam War during this period generally tended toward films about the homefront experience in the aftermath.    Platoon was a cold water treatment, a reminder to the generation too young to remember what the conflict was all about.  In that respect, it was important that the film came from a man who had been part of the conflict himself.

In 1965, Oliver Stone dropped out of Yale, volunteered for duty and was placed with the 25th Infantry along the border of Cambodia.  The film is about Stone’s experiences there and he is represented by a young volunteer named Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) who arrives in Vietnam because he believes it is his duty to do so.  Everyone thinks he is insane and it isn’t long before he begins to have second thoughts.

What separates Platoon from other portraits of Vietnam is that Stone abandons any sense of gradual awakening.   Right away Chris is dropped into a world of grueling hikes, sleepless nights, flesh-chewing bugs, C-rations and surprise attacks.  He narrates the story in the form of letters that he writes to his grandmother in introspective observances that are surprisingly poetic: “Somebody once wrote ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason’. That’s what this place feels like. Hell.”

What brings the film home are the battle scenes which Stone constructs without orientation. We don’t know where the bullets are coming from or the positioning of the American soldiers from the Vietnamese. In some cases, we aren’t even sure if they aren’t shooting back at other Americans. There are moments when the violence springs up out of nowhere as in an ambush near a burned-out church. There are moments when the tension builds but the movie has established such an unpredictable order for the battles that we aren’t really sure what is going to happen. There’s a tense moment early in the film when Chris wakes up in the middle of the night and sees the Viet Cong approaching just a few yards away – he can’t move without being detected and he can’t reach his gun without moving. That’s the kind of scene that could be pumped full of a lot of quick-thinking and feux heroism but this movie earns that tension.

I would like to imagine what impact Platoon might have had if Stone had been able to make it in 1976. Would it have had the kind of general impact that it had later on a generation that came to it completely ignorant of the real life conflict? Stone’s message with this film is that when we try to guess what the Vietnam conflict was like, we should admit that those of us who weren’t there (and are thankful for it) don’t know what we are talking about. This is the first movie to see this war from the ground-level without a lot of movie theatrics and it could only have come from a man who witnessed it first hand.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.