Thursday, August 4, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 86
Writer/Director: Oliver Stone
Star: Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger
“Platoon” is a horrifying, gut-wrenching film that leaves you dazed, depressed and conflicted. It’s also a masterpiece. I write that hoping that I don’t have to watch it again anytime soon.
The film begins in 1967 and centers on a young soldier named Chris (Charlie Sheen) arriving in Vietnam to fight for his country. As he and the other recruits land, they pass a pile of body bags about to be sent back to America. The metaphor is not lost on us.
Instead of wasting time and exposition on setting up the war, the infantry and our location, writer/director Oliver Stone simply cuts to Chris walking, hobbling and crawling his way through the jungles, immediately in over his head. He’s attacked by fire ants, leeches, mosquitoes and has several encounters with poisonous snakes during the film. We learn the most about his personality through annoying letters he writes to his Grandmother that are recited in voice-over narration. Stone seems to be trying to get his thesis about the war and how it changes men out through the voice-over, but ultimately it’s unnecessary and the conclusions Chris draws at the finale aren’t anything a smart viewer won’t come to on his own.
The movie is at its most tense when Stone drops us into a situation and lets the viewer play catch-up while the characters soldier on. He is honest and ingenious in doing this since real soldiers (I’m guessing) don’t know much about the situations they are getting themselves into before the fact and, ultimately, just want to get through it alive. By doing this, Stone layers the suspense brilliantly. For example, even if they can shoot the soldiers, then there’s some sort of fire-bombing happening, but even if they live through that there’s the fact that they lost their platoon, etc. It’s relentless and all the more real because of it.
I also have to say how wonderfully Stone shoots anarchy. At this point we’ve been force-fed “shaky cam” so long that, no matter what the movie and the circumstance, if anything is supposed to be a bit hard-to-follow or suspenseful, the shaky cam comes out. This is even if the sequence is completely at odds stylistically with everything else in the film. I’m looking at you, “Harry Potter.” Do you hear me, “Star Trek”? And don’t even get me started on goddamn “Battle: Los Angeles” or “Cloverfield.” Yes, shaking the camera disorients the viewer, but you know what else it does? It pisses us the hell off. Have you ever heard someone walk out of a movie and say, “That scene where the camera went all wobbly was just the best!” No. They say, “I need to go vomit my popcorn up in the bathroom, be right back.”
In “Platoon” Stone holds the camera steady, paying close attention to the lighting, the frame and the camera’s point-of-view. The sequence that begins when Chris and a fellow soldier are in a fox-hole and strain as they (and we) watch the fog and listen for any hint that the enemy might be close is a masterpiece in sustained suspense. The characters (and, as an extension, we) don’t know where we are, but by keeping the camera steady and the location visible, there’s even more apprehension. The Viet Cong could be anywhere in the frame, and Stone has fun teasing us that way.
Okay, “fun” isn’t the right word. Nothing about the movie is “fun.” This is an action movie where the action feels like a punch to the gut. At first, keeping Chris’ character two-dimensional felt like a blow against the movie, but it’s actually one of the only instances where it ultimately works in the film’s favor. Because we only know the basics about Chris, we can’t quite anticipate his behavior in any given situation. When he loses it for a moment and begins shooting the ground where a one-legged man is standing, we are horrified, but it still feels in character.
That scene and the ones that immediately follow, culminating in Tom Berenger’s Sgt. Barnes shooting a civilian and almost murdering a child, are so gut-wrenching you can barely watch them. Stone doesn’t shy away from the ugliness, nor does he show it off, he merely shows it as it is.
Barnes is a fascinating villain. He’s horribly scarred, been shot many times, and some of the men think he simply can’t be killed. He does abhorrent things early and often, and we know that he was never a good man. But, and this is a big however, we can understand how his time in Vietnam has twisted him further into becoming the monster he is. Stone creates another character, Bunny (Kevin Dillon), who is likeable enough at first but quickly begins to show signs that he could easily turn into another Barnes. This is what the war…the jungle…the men…the world does to these soldiers. In showing the men as simply and matter-of-factly as possible, Stone has inferred just how complex the war really is, so much more than the bang-bang-you’re-dead of most war movies.
It is also worth noting that, although the movie is super-violent, there is not a lot of gore. Even when it happens, it’s quickly cut away from, instead showing us the men’s reaction to what is going on. More than that, the Viet Cong soldiers remain a shadowy menace throughout. We never get very good looks at them, which, again, makes them even more menacing. Stone strikes the perfect (yes, perfect) balance of what to show and what to leave to the audience’s imagination, a lesson directors need to remind themselves of today.
“Platoon” doesn’t get into the politics of the Vietnam War, nor does it give any insight into the General’s battle plans or evasion tactics. So, in theory, it views the war neutrally, focusing instead on the men and their reaction to the chaos around them. And yet, if there was a film that makes a more convincing anti-war case, I have yet to see it.
My Score (out of 5): *****