Saturday, June 25, 2011

No. 83: Platoon

Readers, think back to the movies of your childhood. Most kids my age remember, you know, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Aladdin. I definitely saw those movies, but unlike most kids, a good chunk of my younger years were spent watching World War Two films. For this, I can thank my Dad. He introduced me to the strange magic of Cary Grant leading a doomed bombing raid over Tokyo, Robert Montgomery piloting a plummeting aircraft, stoic John Wayne leading his platoon into combat. Not typical kid movies, but they fueled my love for the classics, and left me enjoying war films today.

Still, I didn’t know a ton about today’s film: AFI No. 83, Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). I knew it was a bloody Vietnam War epic, and that it had Johnny Depp in a cameo role. And that was about it. After a little pre-viewing research, I became intrigued by both the cast (Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger) and the subject matter: the physical and psychological effects of Vietnam.

Chris Taylor (Sheen), a naïve college dropout, arrives in Vietnam and is shocked by the senseless violence. Taylor befriends the men in his platoon - including compassionate Sgt. Elias (Dafoe) - but is quickly hardened by constant combat and excessive drugs and alcohol. When the platoon discovers a village suspected of aiding Vietnamese soldiers, platoon leader Sgt. Barnes (Berenger) shoots a female villager in the head. Elias reports the killing to military authorities, leading Barnes to murder Elias. Taylor suspects Barnes, and seeks revenge. The platoon is ambushed, and during the battle, Barnes tries to kill Taylor, but an explosion knocks them both unconscious; Taylor, of course, has the strength to stand and shoot Barnes. The wounded Taylor is allowed to return home, and as he leaves the jungle, he weeps.

To my surprise, I really enjoyed Platoon. Not a perfect film – but it definitely has good and bad points. As always, let’s start with the good.

First: fantastic characters. Most of the actors are great, but Willem Dafoe’s performance - pre-Green-Goblin smirk, bright red bandana, dramatic death - was probably my favorite part of the film. Tom Berenger makes his character a hard-to-forget psychotic, and the aforementioned Johnny Depp is great in a supporting role - and also quite attractive. The location shooting - the whole movie was shot in the Philippines - adds yet another layer of depth to the film (especially when you’re watching it on a laptop four inches away from your face.)

I really did like most of the movie. I liked the plot; the actors; the artistic direction - what could be left?

Charlie Sheen. Mr. I-have-tiger-blood’s performance didn’t impress me, and in fact, felt almost - fake? Just a personal opinion, but that’s how I saw it.

So, if you like..

* Long, painfully drawn-out death scenes
* Willem Dafoe: officially the coolest soldier to ever to hit Vietnam
* Pre-winning Charlie Sheen
* A supporting cast filled with great actors: Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp, etc.
* War-torn jungles filled with guerrilla ambushes and poisonous scorpions
* A fantastic 60’s-music soundtrack, featuring artists like The Rascals and Smokey Robinson

..then you’ll love Platoon.

Next up: Giant (1956.) Not one of my favorites, but I do love me some Liz Taylor and James Dean - stick around and read about it!


  1. What wonderful writing. Josie, your reviews keep getting better and better; this was a pleasure to read. I'm the opposite of you: war movies are too painful for me to watch; I have difficulty separating the filmic from the real, and the violent tragedy is too much for me to bear. But, I admire your ability to watch and analyze the film with such beautiful language and measured perception. Giant, on the other hand, is a film I love; I look forward to what you have to say about it—and Liz and James, and Rock Hudson, who was such an enigma, with so much distance between who he was on the screen and who he was in life—on repeat viewing.

  2. I haven't seen Platoon since it came out, but your review brought back to me the thing that impressed me most about it: Willem Dafoe's great humanity. It must be interesting to watch it now, knowing what we all (sadly) know about Charlie Sheen. Funny that his father and he both had their Vietnam jungle films—I'll look forward to your take on Apocalypse Now!