“I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.”
If all war films were as good and sincere as Platoon it would probably be one of my favorite genres, but there are very few exceptions where the material is treated right as most directors tend to either be incredibly biased debating either in favor or against the war. It’s strange I make this claim since Platoon is obviously an anti-war film, but it treats the material with an honesty you don’t find in other films of the genre. It is much easier to make a statement like this in a war that everyone considers was a terrible mistake to get into. What Platoon has going for it however, is that it was written and directed by a man who actually served in the Vietnam War and decided to share his experience of what really was going on. Oliver Stone handles the material with incredible honesty not shying away from the horrors and senseless deaths in war and he delivers a film that never feels sermonizing (with a few exceptions). Even the villains (not the Vietnam soldiers, but the dubious Sgt. Barnes and his band of brothers) are portrayed with some sort of empathy. Platoon isn’t actually a film that focuses on war between Vietnamese and American soldiers, but rather the civil war that was going on inside the mind of these soldiers that Stone fought alongside with. He wasn’t afraid at pointing out who the real enemy truly was and for that reason the Vietnamese soldiers are barely portrayed in this film. It seems that with Platoon, Stone was able to cope with the effects that the war had on him and the result is a passionate and sincere film.
In the very opening scene we are introduced to Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) as he has just been deployed to Vietnam and is arriving at the war zone. He narrates the film through voiceover as he is writing letters to his grandma informing her about the war. Unlike most of the soldiers, he wasn’t forced to go to the war, but volunteered after giving up on college. During the first few weeks he is struggling to keep up with the pace of war and no one seems to care too much for him since he’s the new kid who hasn’t yet been exposed to all the carnage they’ve experienced. Chris is currently serving two noncommissioned officers who couldn’t be more different from each other. On the one hand there is scar faced Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) who seems to have been in the war forever and on the other there is Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) who is much more lighthearted and easy going. Both are experts at war who know they are fighting with unexperienced soldiers. When a village raid gets out of hand both Sergeants take opposite sides and the platoon is divided between those who support Elias and those who take Barnes’s side. Evidently the war has taken a toll on all these men and some begin to question their very participation in it when they realize the enemy is inside each of them. There are also supporting performances from Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, and John C. McGinley who are all in the platoon together.
There is no denying the emotional buildup during the scene of the village raid and Johnny Depp’s face says it all during one of the killings that takes place there. It is one of the most intense scenes I’ve seen in a war film. The performances in this movie are what stood out for me. Charlie Sheen is great in the lead role, but it is the confrontation between Berenger and Dafoe that truly stands out. Both deserved their Oscar nominations despite not winning, but Platoon still took the top honors for Best Picture in 1987. My only complaint with the film perhaps was that it didn’t really need the voiceover narration from Charlie Sheen. Stone could’ve had enough faith in the audience and let them see what he wanted to say with the images alone and not spoon feed them with the narration. The excuse for its inclusion is that he is writing his grandmother, but there are things as the movie goes on that are evidently thrown in there so the audience could understand what he was thinking. It’s just a minor complaint because his character was still the easiest to identify with. The score and the cinematography are both effective and they enhance the horrors portrayed in this film. Platoon still manages to have an impact almost thirty years later and that is why it is a classic.