Platoon (1986): United States – directed by Oliver Stone
Rated R by the MPAA – contains strong language, war violence, mature themes, drug use, some sexual content
Platoon opens perfectly, with a quote from Ecclesiastes: “Rejoice, young man, in your youth.” The movie then launches straight into the story of a young man freshly arriving in Vietnam. It follows him through the first several months of his year-long tour of duty, through deadly ambushes and boring days at camp, and finally through a frantic and chaotic battle.
There’s not a great deal of exposition in Platoon, merely Charlie Sheen’s narration as Chris, a lowly grunt in the infantry. He writes home to his grandmother, the only member of his affluent family who still talks to him after he enlisted. His reasoning is that it shouldn’t just be the poor and the unwanted that fight for society.
There isn’t much of a greater context for the war, though Chris talks about it in an idealistic way. This, too, is soon swept away by the torrent of war that he faces continually. The challenge he faces of being the new guy, a man who is more expendable because he hasn’t put in as much time. The longer a man’s been serving, the more he should be put in cushy positions, in the opinion of many men, including half-crazed grunt Bunny (Kevin Dillon) and the vile Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger). On the other side is the “waterwalker” Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe). He has concern for the fresh meat, as well as for the innocent civilians the platoon encounters on their maneuvers.
The majority of the conflict in Platoon isn’t between the United States and the North Vietnamese. It is between Barnes and Elias, fighting, as Chris says, over his soul. This is purgatory, perhaps, and the soul is in limbo. In this brief amount of time spent in Vietnam/purgatory, the good and the bad engage in the fierce struggle over Chris. One side wants to pull him in and convince him that anything that furthers the war effort is desirable, even if it means torching a village and executing innocent civilians. The other side honors the dignity of life without being a flower-loving pansy.
There are other men caught in the conflict. Some, like Lerner (Johnny Depp), are mere bystanders. Others, including a small contingent of black soldiers (Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn) are bitter about their involvement. They know they are society’s unwanted outcasts, sent to fight a war for society’s elite. They ridicule Chris’s naivety and idealism, knowing that he doesn’t understand the reality of their situation.
Chris learns, though. On patrol, surviving ambushes, hanging with the guys in camp, he learns the ropes and the situation. The drug tent at camp is their favorite hideout. Some of the men use drugs as an escape, to free their minds. Others think that the drugs imprison the users. Chris sees how different men react in different situations. When a squad-mate is killed they all want revenge. Some draw the line at killing civilians to find the Viet Cong responsible, while others, unfazed by the killing, believe that rape is their right as well. Some, like Elias, are concerned with it all, though he is not a simple two dimensional character. In the drug tent he blends into the background, his mind free and unobstructed.
Platoon perfectly captures the mood and atmosphere with which it is concerned. There aren’t any easy answers, and Chris’s narration, while a bit stiff at times, never over-analyzes the situation. After an initial viewing there is still plenty to be gained from a second or third screening. Platoon isn’t really concerned with the Vietnam war or the global consequences of America’s involvement. Instead it focuses on the men involved, those whose lives are being shaped by the conflict. It is not worried about the effects the men will face later in life, more in how their situation in the war shapes them as people. Do they give in to rage, or stand up for human dignity?
The film is heavily concerned with matters of morality and lack of morality, but never preaches one idea or another. There are good guys and bad guys, but almost no one is black or white. Elias and Barnes are the most clear-cut, and it is evident they are fighting each other for the souls of the rest of the platoon. The main evil is a lack of reason, and indeed hell is defined in the film as the impossibility of reason. Lack of a reason for the conflict brings everyone into the war, lack of reason in the war causes horrible deeds.
The climactic battle brings judgment day on them all, the sinners and the saints. Dues are paid, yet even this final punishment is without reason. Director Oliver Stone surely had some inspiration for the level of allegory in the film. Or, more possibly, he simply recounted his days in service in Vietnam and how it felt to live and die there. Either way, he has created a memorable film, and possibly one of the greatest of the 1980’s.