#86 Platoon

So, I obviously went on a bit of a hiatus from running through this list. I did a little work, explored some other hobbies and generally have kept pretty busy.

But, I’m back to the project now.

Next up on the list is Oliver Stone’s 1986 Vietnam War drama, Platoon.

A young Charlie Sheen plays Chris Taylor, an upper middle-class kid who volunteered for the Vietnam war and now finds himself deployed amongst a group of men who were drafted. The first 20 minutes of the film are basically what I would call scene-setting, portrayals of life in the jungles of Vietnam – ants biting his face, sleeping on the hard ground in the rain, that sort of thing.

Then, after the lookout who is supposed to relieve Taylor falls asleep, their platoon is ambushed. Taylor is blamed by some for not being on lookout (even though he wasn’t supposed to be at that time).

What follows is a slow acceptance of Taylor into the culture of the platoon, including lots of partying and weed smoking.

Then, one day, out on patrol, the platoon commits numerous atrocities, starting with shooting the livestock, beating a crippled boy to death, shooting an old woman and eventually torching the village. Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berringer) is the ring leader in committing the war crimes and is confronted by Sergeant Elias (William Dafoe) over his behavior and the two get into a fight right at the scene of the village.

Afterwards, Taylor’s character narrates that “I don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore”.

Some time later, during an ambush in the forrest, Barnes shoots Elias while no one else is around. Elias somehow survives and is seen by the platoon from their evacuation helicopters being gunned down by the Vietcong.

Taylor confronts Barnes back at the camp and Barnes has a number of the film’s memorable lines in the scene including:

“There is the way it ought to be and the way it is” and “What do you know about death?”

The two fight and Barnes ultimate winds up with a knife to Taylor’s throat but decides not to kill him.

Later, the platoon is up in Cambodia fortifying a position from foxholes when they are overrun by Vietcong. In the fight that ensues, most of the platoon is killed and Barnes and Taylor encounter each other during the fight. Barnes tries to kill Taylor but a napalm strike kills him before he can. Taylor survives but is injured and sent home.

The film closes with Taylor narrating “we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves”.

There are several aspects of this film that are brilliant. It is extremely well cast – Sheen, Berringer and Dafoe are not actors with huge ranges but they are put in roles that play extremely well to their strengths. The camera work and editing are fantastic – you are really put on the ground in the middle of a war. The film does an excellent job putting you in the middle of atrocious situations and while it can feel a bit heavy-handed at times, it takes great pains to not be overly judgey about all of the characters thrust into the situations that the find themselves in.

The films main shortcoming is that the message is not new – “bad stuff happened in Vietnam” was hardly a groundbreaking message in 1986. And while this film preceeded the similarly situated Full Metal Jacket by a year, that film gave us much more three-dimensional characters and did a better job of giving an end-to-end view of living through the war while Platoon was very focused on the actually acts of war.

In total, this is a very good film, but not one that I will feel compelled to rewatch many times.

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 8/10

Acting 9/10

Rewatch Value 5/10

Overall Score 32/40

Next up, something completely different – 1935’s Night at the Opera.

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