Thursday, December 2, 2010

1986 - Platoon

Kat and I spent Thanksgiving weekend in Miami with a couple of fellow Aussie ex-pats. We walked along Miami Beach, we shopped on Lincoln Road Mall, we lay by the hotel pool, but mostly, we ate at restaurants. It was essentially three days of eating ... in beautifully warm weather. Back to the cold climes of New York City now...

Next up in 1986's race for Best Picture is...

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone
Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, Reggie Johnson, Mark Moses, Corey Glover, Johnny Depp
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
4 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

Drawing from his own experiences during the Vietnam War, director and writer Oliver Stone tells the story of Chris Taylor (Sheen), a young soldier arriving in Vietnam for a one-year tour of duty. As the newbie, he struggles to acclimate to the poor conditions and his fellow soldiers. Making matters worse is the fact that his superiors seem to be constantly locking horns. The hostile and facially scarred Sergeant Barnes (Berenger) lacks respect for his own superior, the unassertive Lieutenant Wolfe (Moses), and is also at loggerheads with Sergeant Elias (Defoe), seemingly the only soldier who tries to remain compassionate and reasonable.

If you're not a fan of war films, you probably shouldn't bother with Platoon. Its intense battle scenes are violent and often gory. But the graphic depiction of the war is not the only reason to laud this as a great film. Platoon succeeds because of its characters. The platoon of the title is composed of a variety of soldier types - the tough soldier, the frightened soldier, the corrupt soldier, the takes-it-as-it-comes soldier, the I've-had-enough soldier. In fact, that last type could probably refer to a number, if not all, of the members of the platoon.

There are times when the story seems to ramble. The company moves from mission to mission, fighting battles and losing some of their own. But, undoubtedly, this chaotic and unsettling narrative is representative of the war itself. It also serves to highlight how war can change a person. There is moral ambiguity in a great deal of the platoon's actions and each soldier makes at least one questionable decision, none more so than Sergeant Barnes, whose depravity acts somewhat as the story's through-line. Besides, the entire picture is so captivating that I hardly noticed that two hours had passed.

Georges Delerue's arrangement of Samuel Barber's stirring "Adagio for Strings" is powerfully moving, especially as used over the now iconic image of Elias' dying arms in the air. And Robert Richardson's Oscar-nominated cinematography infuses beauty into otherwise disturbing images.

And then there's the cast - an eclectic mix to match the diversity of the characters. Willem Defoe and Tom Berenger (pictured) both merited their Best Supporting Actor nominations. At the beginning of his career, Charlie Sheen was well-suited to play the naive new recruit who receives a trial by fire. Other up-and-comers at the time that appeared as platoon members were Kevin Dillon (you know him from Entourage), Mark Moses (you know him from Mad Men and Desperate Housewives), Forest Whitaker (you know him from The Last King of Scotland), Keith David (you know him from a lot of movies), John C. McGinley (you know him from Scrubs and most of Oliver Stone's other films) and Johnny Depp (you just know him). McGinley is especially fun to watch, playing a rather eccentric but eventually human Sergeant.


  1. I've always thought Platoon was the weakest of the three big Vietnam films.

    For me, they are (in order):
    Apocalypse Now
    Full Metal Jacket

    It unfortunate that we have to compare Oliver Stone's work to two other masters, Coppola and Kubrick, but unfortunately for Stone - he doesn't stack up.

    I've watched Platoon multiple times looking for what everyone raves about and I simply can't find it.

    Don't get me wrong - I love Wall St - but I never have been a fan of Platoon.

  2. The opening scene of Platoon, with the new arrivals passing the departing soldiers staring blankly at each other, with the somber notes of Adagio for strings immediately let us know that this isn't going to be another The Longest Day. Indeed, this is an anti-war film of frequent gut-wrenching power, where an unseen enemy, dubious politics and a civil war within the platoon itself wages.

    This is another film that parallels my own lifeline. I was just about Charlie Sheen's age in 1967 and no doubt would have been drafted and shipped out to Nam if I had left college. Joining the Police Department at graduation two years later gave me another deferment. Some of my friends went and either didn't come back or came back different people. Stone's own experiences there are palpable in his depiction of the warfare. While I wouldn't place Platoon among the great war films, I think it is one of Oliver Stone's better films. While I would agree with Phil about Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket's schizophrenic structure detracts. It was mesmerizing in the first half and adequate in the second for me.

    I read that Stone considered Johnny Depp for the main character, but felt he was a little too young. Depp, as unit translator, got to show off his talent with foreign languages and accents, even at this young age. Tom Berenger had the juiciest role and gave what is probably his best career performance.