Platoon

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I can’t speak for anybody else, but in my mind, common wisdom decrees that there is an unholy trinity of quintessential Vietnam movies that’s made up of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Oliver Stone’s Platoon. With apologies to Casualties Of War and Hamburger Hill, this harrowing trio of films attacks the notorious war from noticeably different angles using distinctly individual styles to get across the insanity of a senseless war. But where Coppola blew Apocalypse Now to Dante’s Inferno levels of insanity when casting an eye over the war torn hellscape and Kubrick used his cold, stark visuals to show America’s youth being eroded into killers for Full Metal Jacket, Stone took a more boots on the ground approach, eschewing grandiose metaphors and esoteric storytelling to draw on his own experiences as a U.S. infantryman and thus spawning one of the greatest war movies ever made.

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Its 1967 and wide-eyed volunteer Chris Taylor has just landed near the Cambodian border in South Vietnam to start his year long tour of duty and is already realising he’s made a horrible mistake. He is assigned to the 25th Infantry Division which is supposed to be run by the inexperienced and massively ineffectual Lieutenant Wolfe, but in actuality the Platoon refers to it’s two, far more experienced sergeants, the cold, brutal Barnes and the idealistic Elias, meaning that the entire company is made up of two factions who follow each man and their respective ideals while generally co-existing.
After a few days on patrol and a few near misses, Taylor shakily walks the line between the two groups, finding common ground in both, but after both groups suffer some heavy losses due to some well placed booby traps, everyone’s emotions are stretched to the point of snapping even more than usual. The breaking point comes when, on a routine patrol, the platoon find an enemy weapons cache in a simple village and a schism forms between Elias’ and Barnes’ followers when the former’s line of brutal questioning crosses a line and the behavior of his men grow ever more barbaric, including the fatal bludgeoning of a handicapped young man and the attempted gang rape of two girls.
From that moment on, the divide in the platoon only widens with Barnes getting ever more worried that if Elias testifies against him, he’ll get a court-martial for his murderous methods. So the metaphorical struggle between this angel and devil escalates with the soul of Taylor dangling in the middle and Barnes is hardly in the mood to take any prisoners – but as tensions reach an all time high and tragedy looms, the enemy without stage a daring raid that could see everyone’s grievances immediately rendered null and void by default.

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Oliver Stone claimed that Platoon was his answer to more overtly heroic movies like John Wayne’s The Green Berets and after watching the movie you certainly can’t say he didn’t succeed. Morally murky on every level, from the treatment of new recruits (treated as all but invisible until they’ve served serious time and not died), to the legitimately upsetting village sequence where the over spilling emotions of the Platoon lead to some inhuman acts (Barnes callous shooting of a woman comes out of nowhere and it gets worse from there), Stone devotes every frame he can to violently scrub the image of the squeaky clean American soldier from the public consciousness and shows things how they really were. Seen through the eyes of Charlie Sheen’s hopelessly green, idealistic rich kid, we see that the majority of his peers are poor kids from nowhere towns who enlisted because they have no other choice and while some get high in order to blot out the stress, other thrive in the chaos, thinking that mindless exterminating anyone who even looks like the enemy is the epitome of the American dream.

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The cast is sprawling, yet easy to keep track of, primarily because Stone had a supernaturally keen eye for casting people before they hit big and most of the famous faces somehow make an impact bot matter how fleeting their appearance may be. While Sheen makes you remember how good he used to be (while following in the footsteps of his dad, who famously nearly died headlining Apocalypse Now), you are staggered by the sheer amount of famous faces such as Johnny Depp’s passive interpreter, Keith David’s friendly grunt, Kevin Dillion’s unhinged thug, John C. McGinley’s weasley suck up and a bunch of others including Forrest Whitaker, Tony Todd and Mark Moses. However, the focal point of the movie is the battle of ideals that splits the Platoon in two and the actors standing on both sides of the divide as nothing short of magnificent. Willem Dafoe puts across an underlying sense of gentleness and decency in his Sgt. Elias as he confesses that he feels that Vietnam may be a punishment that America has earned (“We’ve been kicking other people’s asses for so long I figure it’s time we got ours kicked.”), while Tom Berenger’s humourless Barnes simply will do whatever it takes to survive while sporting a permanent scowl carved into his face that goes almost as deep as his nasty looking scars.
Stone takes his varied cast and dunks them into searing heat, driving tropical rain and frenetic firefights that put you right in the midst of the chaos as our characters panic, fight an die as a mostly faceless enemy swarms over them in waves. Admittedly, the Viet Cong may be denied much of a personality, but this isn’t a war movie about fighting the enemy, this is a movie about fighting yourselves and when Barnes’ and Elias’ grudge reaches the point of no return we are graced with possibly one of the greatest death scenes ever committed to film as (Spoiler) Defoe’s Elias, wounded and abandoned, clutches for the heavens as hordes of enemy troops cut him down with machine gun fire as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings swirls around his twitching body.

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It’s all moving, powerful stuff, and while the devastating final battle that sees scores of VC swarm over the American camp like the bugs from Starship Troopers may have an ending that may smack a little of convenience, the fact that a disproportionate amount of “good” guys survive the assault is a much needed reprieve for the audience after such an intense ride while diluting none of the emotion.

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