Friday, December 12, 2014

Platoon (Best Picture of 1986)

I remember watching Platoon while I was in college. I went with several friends to see it, and I remember one of my girl friends saying that she thought all three leads were handsome. I remember thinking that the film itself was not attractive. I guess that was the point.

Platoon tells the story of newbie Chris, a fresh-faced Charlie Sheen, who arrives in Viet Nam to "do his part." His grandfather had fought in WWI, and his father in WWII, so now it was his turn. He quit college and enlisted. The time is September 1967; we know this because there is a screen shot that tells us.  For his first weeks he is lonely and afraid; no one talks to the new guys because their fatality rate is so high. Chris begins to regret his decision. Slowly he becomes acclimated, and we meet the men in his platoon. Unfortunately, most of them go by too fast for me to catch their names. Tom Berenger is the heavily-scarred Sergeant Barnes. He runs the outfit, even though Mark Moses is the genial Lieutenant who is nominally in charge. There are another few sergeants, but the one who catches our eye is Sergeant Elias, played by Willem Dafoe. He seems to genuinely care about his men. Forest Whittaker, Jonny Depp, and Keith David play some of the other men in the platoon whose names I didn't catch.

One night while the platoon is out in the field the veteran on watch falls asleep and the Viet Cong manage to walk up almost on top of their platoon. Chris is awake because he can't sleep, but he has set his rifle aside, just out of reach. There is a great moment of tension as the enemy gets closer and closer. There is a huge fight, and several men are killed. Chris has now proved his worth, and begins to be accepted into the ranks. Later, back at the base camp there is a riveting scene after he is invited to smoke marijuana with "the cool guys." He ends up breathing in smoke from Sgt Elias' empty rifle. Phallic symbolism, as well as military symbolism, permeates the scene.
Boredom replaces fear until the platoon goes on another mission on New Years Day 1968. They find a deserted enemy bunker, but booby traps kill two men, and another guard is grabbed and left elsewhere for them to find. The platoon is on high alert when they come to a village. They pillage it, raping some of the women, murdering indiscriminately. Chris is disgusted, but it is Sgt. Elias who steps up and fights Sgt. Barnes to stop it. "Good" and "Evil" have now been established, and the rest of the movie is Chris torn between the two father figures. In case we didn't pick up on it ourselves, at the end of the film Chris the Narrator tells us that it was difficult to choose between the two father figures.
Now there is a Civil War between the men in the platoon, some with Barnes and some with Elias. The captain tells everyone that the incident in the village will be investigated later, but for now they all need to work together. Elias leads a few men on a mission to prevent a cross-fire from getting set up, and during this mission Barnes shoots Elias. As the platoon is evacuated by helicopters, everyone sees the wounded but still living Elias attempt to escape from the VC, then dying spectacularly, hands thrown up to Heaven. Chris suspects Barnes, but has no proof. Barnes confronts Chris and Elias' "cool guys" but knows there is nothing that they can do. The next night the VC attacks in hordes, and everyone goes crazy trying to kill the enemy and to survive. Bombs drop on their area just as Chris and Barnes meet up, and Barnes appears poised to kill Chris. Instead, Chris wakes up the next morning and shoots Barnes. He was wounded during the carnage, so is placed on a helicopter and air-lifted away.
The film ends with Chris' narration, looking back on the carnage. He tells us that he went on to try to live a good life, trying to find meaning in something, to honor the men who didn't make it back. The film had started with a quote from Eccliastes, "Rejoice oh young man in your youth." It ends with a dedication to all the men who had served in Viet Nam.

For the record, I am not a fan of war films. I find the idea of trying to make sense of something as senseless as war is a waste of everyone's time. War does not lend itself to a linear story. That being said, as a portrait of Chris, and his specific experiences, this is not a bad film. The scenery (filmed in the Philippines) is impressive. The directing is outstanding, especially the extended scenes in the middle of the jungle. The actors are all excellent. Dafoe and Berenger were both nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but neither won. Keith David, especially, as one of the first men to befriend Charlie Sheen's character, is outstanding.  However, the men are little more than pieces to be moved in the story. The story is where the film is weak. As I said, the film is fine as a simple chronological sequence of events; there is no "story." Platoon is not everyone's type of film, I am sure, but it is well done if the subject matter interests you.

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1986*
Produced by Arnold Kopelston
Directed  by Oliver Stone
Screenplay by Oliver Stone

You will get a real feeling for the Seriousness of the film from this trailer

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Children Of A Lesser God
Hannah And Her Sisters
The Mission
A Room With A View
At the time of the nominations I saw each of these films except for Hannah And Her Sisters, which I finally saw yesterday. Children Of A Lesser God is a terrific romance about hearing impaired Marlee Matlin having a relationship with sign language teacher William Hurt. She won the Best Actress Oscar, currently the youngest actress (21) to do so, and the only actually hearing-impaired person to ever win any Academy Award. She beat out Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, by the way. The Mission is an old-fashioned "epic" starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons as they work for or against a Jesuit mission in South America. The film by Roland Joffe is breath-taking. A Room With A View is the film version of the E.M. Forster novel about love in Edwardian England. And Hannah And Her Sisters? I watched it because it won Best Supporting awards for Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine, who are the best part of just another Woody Allen film about middle class insecurities.

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