“Somebody once wrote, ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That’s what this place feels like. Hell.” — Letter from Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) to his grandmother
By Scott Ross
Seeing Oliver Stone’s breakout movie on its original release was one of those experiences that are so intensely felt that one rather resists a second viewing. But as I am in the process of re-evaluating Stone’s work, how could I not revisit this seminal picture? That Platoon rewards the returning viewer is not surprising; that what felt like dramaturgical flaws in it three decades ago* now largely strike one as much more subtle and integrated is a very pleasant surprise.
Although the picture functions as kind of exorcism for its writer-director, Platoon is not merely an exercise in cinematic memoir, and the assurance of its writing and direction strikes me now, as it did then, as heralding a unique talent, which indeed it did. The picture also reminds us of how appealing Charlie Sheen seemed at the time (the ardor, at least on my part, didn’t last long.) And if Platoon becomes an allegory, its central character pulled between father-figures saintly (Willem Dafoe) and Satanic (Tom Berenger), the metaphor feels less willfully imposed today than it did in 1987… although Dafoe occasionally seems too good to be true, especially in our first real glimpse of him, smiling welcomingly at Sheen from his hammock, and in a way that could be misinterpreted as seductive.
This seems as good a place as any to take note of the subsequent sequence of the “cool” soldiers dancing to Smokey Robinson. There’s a charming shot of Sheen being silently asked to join, declining, and being pulled to his feet that is almost a homoerotic parody of a high-school mixer, and the dance itself is both joyously comradely and vaguely romantic. I am not making a case here for a deeper reading of this moment. It’s merely an observation: Enforced single-gender institutions like the armed forces of the period make such social accommodations necessary — there are historic photos as well of isolated cowboys dancing together — but they’re very rarely depicted in popular entertainment, and just as rarely commented on. Billy Wilder did something similar in Stalag 17, and it’s seldom remarked upon either.
Although I’ve never been in a combat unit, it seems to me that Stone gets it all right: The heat, the rain, the insects, the boredom, the confusion, the terror… and, especially in that CIA-directed war, the creeping realization that there is no clear purpose to any of it. When the emotions of Sheen’s platoon-mates boil over, and precipitate atrocity against a Vietnamese village, the causes are demonstrably more than the convenient racism that accompanies them. (There were, as our engagement in Vietnam imploded, well over 200 documented cases of “fragging” — the murder by troops of their commanding officers — and behind them was precisely that advanced level of unmitigated frustration.) I recall this sequence especially well because, during it the film at the theatre in which I was seeing it with an older friend broke and when I turned to talk to him, he was staring straight ahead and unable to speak; afterward he, a former Navy man during the Vietnam period, told me he’d spent decades deriding the anti-war movement of the time. That My Lai-like sequence rocked him, on an extremely personal level, and forced him to confront his own, long-cherished, ideas. This is not merely evidence of the power of film generally, but the power of this film specifically.
It could be argued, I suppose, that Stone didn’t need to depict the battle for his surrogate’s soul as epitomized by the Dafoe/Berenger conflict — that the events of combat themselves were defining enough. I would counter that there is a classic dramatic unity to this central notion, and the only criticism I might make of it is that it may be a bit more explicitly stated than necessary. But opposition in drama is a basic unit of construction, and the gulf that lays between them is the abyss into which the traditional naïf must stumble on his way to deciding who he is, and what he believes.
In the large ensemble cast, which along with Sheen, Dafoe and Berenger includes Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, Kevin Dillon, Reggie Johnson, Corey Glover, Johnny Depp, Chris Pedersen, Richard Edson, James Terry McIlvain and Dale Dye, only John C. McGinley gives an actorly performance. But then, McGinley is nearly always bad; his continued career is one of those, like that of Anthony Heald, which defy rational explanation. He does have one good moment, however: When his plea for respite is turned against him, his face carries a look of such stunned disbelief that the cosmic unfairness seems to have cracked his mind irreparably.
Georges Delerue, who had composed the music for Stone’s previous picture, the incendiary Salvador, contributed a brief, lyrical score and which included a heartfelt passage Stone ultimately rejected in favor of the Barber Adagio for Strings. Claire Simpson provided the effective editing and the cinematographer, Robert Richardson, gave the movie both a pictorial lushness† and a stark reality that encapsulate Chris Taylor’s experience, particularly in the long siege sequence which climaxes the picture. And if Dafoe’s death scene, with its Christ-like symbology and Barber strings, still feels overstated, it’s undeniably moving for all of that. One of the primary lessons the movies teach us is that you can be manipulated and still experience genuine emotion.
It took gumption to get Platoon made — Stone wrote his initial pass on the material in 1968, and ran into the predictable resistance to the material of studio suits throughout the ‘70s — and it’s the sort of impassioned work we may associate with young firebrands. In retrospect, this and Stone’s subsequent Born on the Fourth of July won acclaim (and Academy Awards) in part because by the ‘80s Vietnam was a collective experience many in both the general populace and the press could agree had been an appalling enterprise… even if the whole truth was still unknown by the one and suppressed by the other, as indeed it is to this day. It was only when Stone upset the status quo by extending his critique of American values into areas of recent political turmoil and accepted falsehoods peddled by both the government and that very same which had previously lauded him press that he lost his position as media darling, unlikely ever to be regained.†† The love showered on him pretty much dried up with JFK, and the implacable hatred of that very establishment Stone rightly attacks has gone unabated ever since; I suspect they’d like to see Stone’s Oscars® taken from him now, preferably by force.
Text (aside from quotes from Oliver Stone’s screenplay) copyright 2019 by Scott Ross
“I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.”
*Pauline Kael: “The film has been widely acclaimed, but some may feel that Stone takes too many melodramatic shortcuts, and that there’s too much filtered light, too much poetic license, and too damn much romanticized insanity… The movie crowds you; it doesn’t leave you room for an honest emotion.”
†I’ve never seen this mentioned in criticism of his pictures but Oliver Stone has a clear affinity for the green of nature; it’s there in nearly every movie he makes. Sometimes, as in the recent Snowden (2016) it fairly pops off the screen.
††Although doubtless he would like his movies to reach the wider audience it once did, and which the corporate media could turn toward his work if it chose to, I doubt Stone misses being beloved by the likes of The Washington Post or The New York Times.