Platoon (1986)

Watching this film was an odd experience, none of it just seemed to make any cohesive sense. The slow war scenes and the conversations between soldiers just didn’t gel. It was a war film that seemed to be doing a miserable job at actually doing anything interesting with the concept of war. And then I realized that Platoon isn’t a war film, it’s a comedy. I should have seen the signs earlier: Charlie Sheen, a crazy-ass war scar and villains taken straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon.

Yet it sure finds an odd place to make a comedy. When someone says the words “Vietnam War” the last thing I’d think to say is “man that sure was a barrel of laughs.” But when you put the cast together, it starts to make sense. Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp and John C. McGinley. These are funny people; one might even say they are silly people.

And the setup is pretty funny in a dark way. A well to do college kid, Chris (Charlie Sheen), volunteers for the Vietnam War and placed in a platoon where two sergeants are arch nemesis. Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) is the nice, heroic, brave and sensitive one while Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is a grizzly, hard-ass, evil SOB. He’s pretty much the precursor to Stephen Lang in Avatar, scar and all.

This provides for a nice little G.I. Joe style war film where the good guys are the beacons of civilization and nobility while the bad guys are all monsters who have no regards for anything at all. Some of the scenes, despite how mature and dark they are, come across as naïve and stupid even though they are supposed to be quite harrowing.

One of the worst moments is when a group of soldiers are raping a Vietnamese woman. Chris sees the group, rushes in to stop the soldiers and then scolds them. The soldiers blow him off, acting like it’s no big deal to which Chris responds by saying the woman is a human being and should be treated like one. And he’s right. The problem is that the way writer/director Oliver Stone portrays all the characters as exaggerated and cartoonish. Not for a moment can we believe that these are actually real people because they never act like them.

And speaking of acting that in itself is another harrowing horror of this film. I could never get over the nagging fact that Charlie Sheen is trying and ride of the success of his father, Martin, in another little war film about Vietnam called Apocalypse Now. He simply isn’t that good. I have a suspicion he was stoned during the making of this film because he has these priceless looks throughout the film as if he has no idea where he is.

The rest of the cast isn’t much better. Willem Dafoe, an actor I admire a lot, is given some horribly awful direction and the iconic scene he is given to pull off features hammy, over-the-top acting. Tom Berenger is equally exaggerated, to the point of being laughably bad, not only as a villain but as a performer. His goofy gigantic scar and overly serious look makes him a riot and I often found myself laughing when he was onscreen.

His lackeys are just as silly. Kevin Dillon, besides having the most ridiculous name in the movie, Bunny, runs about as a trigger happy lunatic but portrayed to such an excessive degree that his performance is hilarious. And John C. McGinley, who plays Berenger’s right hand man, channels his inner Chewbacca. The problem is that without the fur suit you look pretty damn stupid flailing about and acting like an ape.

But I have a feeling that Platoon was intended as a serious war picture. It starts off with some effective sequences in the jungle. The first shootout in particular has this interesting hyperawareness and sense of claustrophobia that makes for an interesting action war piece. However, as the film progresses, the battle gets larger and larger, louder and louder and less and less interesting.

And I think this also reflects the gradual increase of commentary on the war which gradually becomes more and more bloated. What writer/director Oliver Stone has to say about the horrors of war might be true, but it’s taken to an extreme. He employs morality like a sledgehammer without subtlety or grace, setting up the aggressors as unequivocally at fault.

I don’t like to get into politics a lot, but I have to say I imagine that this is what extreme anti-war people believe happens in war. Oliver Stone simply has people running around like animals, mindlessly killing and destroying without a second thought. Sure, some of this happens, but the film takes the most extreme cases and uses it as the basis of its argument.

The film does try to balance this out by having the entire other extreme, the idealist soldier who philosophizes on why they fight and doesn’t see the need for any deaths or killings that don’t have to take place. They are noble even amidst all the madness of the world around them and they always take the time to make the right choice. It’s a nice sentiment but real war is filled with tough choices and necessary evils.

So in a way, Oliver Stone presents two sides of the same coin, the horrors of war and the romance of it. It’s an interesting idea, but it doesn’t play out well. Perhaps the biggest problem is that he sets up this entire conflict and shows how Vietnam is a different kind of war but then undermines a lot of what he’s show us in the last two hours by flat-out telling you what the film was about in the last moment.

In this way, Platoon exemplifies how excess can make anything funny. It becomes a joke, a bad one, but one that made me laugh nonetheless. The way the writing, actors and narration deals in extremes makes it hard to take the film serious, even in its darkest moments. Platoon stands in stark contrast Apocalypse Now. While Apocalypse Now addresses the absurdities of war, Platoon becomes absurd.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

Platoon [DVD]