“A gook could be standing three feet in front of me and I wouldn't know it. I'm so tired.”
Oliver Stone's multi-Oscar-nabbing, semi-autobiographical ode to the fallen of the conflict in Vietnam was part of America's conscience-probing wake-up call, an in-your-face accusation for a society to finally face the uncomfortable truth. Despite such worthy, and classic, earlier movies as Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Cimino's The Deer Hunter revealing the peculiar madness and chaos of the war, the basic ass-in-the-grass grunt's life on the frontline had never been told with any veracity. We'd had Sydney J. Furie's The Boys In Company C, which gave a somewhat comical and sanitised view despite being tagged as the first film to portray the grim reality of the war, but the catalyst for a nation's guilt proved, most emphatically, to be Stone's mesmerising series of recollections.
“Somebody once wrote ... Hell is the impossibility of Reason. That's what this place feels like. Hell.”
Martin Sheen completed his tour of duty when he terminated Col. Kurtz's command with “Extreme Prejudice”, and then it was the turn of his son, Charlie, to don the fatigues and head off into the jungle. In the role that sees Stone's painful memories of his own time serving with the 25th Infantry Division personalised and thrown into sharp relief, Sheen plays idealistic green recruit Chris Taylor, arriving in the 'Nam to see the bodybags of the dead being shipped out. The thousand-yard-stare that greets him from those soldiers finally going back to the World is a haunting clue as to the harrowing experiences he will soon undergo. The bleakness of this introduction - unsuspecting youth, or innocence, facing the un-veiled hostility of the seasoned veteran, or haunted pariah - sets the tone for the grim parable of man's innate and furious aggression towards his fellow man that will inevitably follow, as old hands violently snub “newbies” and guys ostensibly on the same side fight tooth and claw amongst themselves, sanity and reason permanently AWOL. Taylor's new platoon enters the fray of confused fire-fights, savage ambushes, booby-traps and the melee resulting from the complete lack of leadership that sank the US ground forces from the get-go, and he finds that his brothers-in-arms are just a microcosm of the frightening social upheaval he left behind him back home. Allying himself with the more liberal-minded, dope-smoking, multi-racial fraternity, Chris finds a way out of the blood and terror of the jungle, little-comprehending that his hero-worship for his new mentor, and spiritual guide, in Willem Dafoe's almost-Native Indian super-warrior, Sgt. Elias Grodin, is going to set him on a collision course with the physical embodiment of his own dark heart, the platoon's rival Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger on rage-hard, career-best form).
“Then the worm has definitely turned for you, man.”
Platoon is essentially about the ceaseless battle between good and evil, the whole warped conflict an addictive hell-hole residing deep within the soul of each and every soldier thrust into the amoral abyss of America's doomed involvement in a war they had no right to be in. That Stone manages to keep his politics behind the blood-smeared riot shield of his celluloid confession is testament to his conviction to honour the soldiers themselves, and not seek to examine or explain the manipulations of a government that had metaphorically opened the gate to a minefield, and then sent its youth inside to play on its grass. Shamelessly pointing the finger at the corrupted NCO's and the blinded, bigoted brass above them - those like Barnes, who have seemingly found their nirvana amid the carnage, and those seeking to duck and dive their responsibilities like the resolutely ineffective Lt. Wolfe (Mark Moses), whose indecision and idiocy in the field are a snapshot of the overall lunacy causing most of the casualties - whilst simultaneously paying homage to the frightened kids walking point and collapsing from heat exhaustion and malaria. It's a zip-wire descent into emotional and physical devastation. Stone's platoon aren't the Hollywood stereotypes - they live and breathe, cry, scream, bleed and die in the sweltering bogus glory of a campaign not one of them understands. And he draws magnificent performances from each and every one of them.
“The village, which had stood for maybe a thousand years, didn't know we were coming that day. If they had, they would have run ...”
Only Johnny Depp, seen here in a slight role as the platoon's interpreter, Lerner, has really gone on to better things - everyone else having reached the top of their game crushingly early on in their careers. Even Berenger and Dafoe, utterly brilliant and compelling actors the pair of them, have not been able to top their defining, and immortal, turns in the combat zone of Stone's visual Purgatory. But with the platoon filled out with the convincing likes of Kevin Dillon's redneck, angel-eyed assassin Bunny, Keith (The Thing) David's solid presence as King, Francesco Quinn's glorious portrayal as the mighty hippie Rhah, Tony (Candyman) Todd's growling countenance as Warren and a marvellous performance from Scrubs' John C. McGinley as Barnes' second, the twitchy, cowardly motor-mouth bully, Sgt. O'Neill, Stone creates an indelible ensemble who move and speak and act like real grunts. Their downtime back at camp is paid just as much authentic detail as their deadly trips out into the bush, with the true-life factionalising of the men acutely observed. The classic scene juxtaposition between the “Juicers” and the “Dopers” bears captivating witness to this. Chris Taylor's initiation into Rhah's bong-bunker, with its copious weed and alarming shotgun-doping, offers a glimpse of terrific soul-bonding and camaraderie in a small niche carved just beyond the borders with Hell, all cut the softly lilting tune of Smokey Robinson's The Tracks Of My Tears. For those of a certain age during the 80's when this film came out, myself included, that song became an anthem. But contrast the sweet bliss of their enclave with the bitter, beer-can-chewing, tense atmosphere in the squad-shed inhabited by Barnes, Bunny, O'Neill and their breed of anxious, macho hard-cases to understand the full dysfunctionality of the platoon. We can see who the spineless Lt. Wolfe wants to ingratiate himself with all too plainly, though his attempts at bonhomie are appallingly cack-handed. “You think he's gonna make it, Barnes?” asks the squirrelly O'Neill once the Lt. has embarrassedly backed out, Barnes just giving a slight glance in reply. “Yep, that's what I figure. Some dudes, you just look in their faces and you know they ain't gonna make it.” The exchange ends with Barnes giving O'Neill that exact same look. He knows, all right. The two factions - one fatalistic and death-fixated, the other still clinging to the happiness they can find in each other's company, unafraid to hope that, one day, they'll get out alive. This was a war that had no direction, no motive. Without a reason for the killing, what chance did such young minds have of reconciling it with their consciences?
“Don't you worry about a thing, Junior ... you're with Audie Murphy here, my man!”
Of course, Stone would address such moral confusion head-on, when the platoon goes on its infamous rampage of the Vietnamese village, in revenge for atrocities that have been committed upon themselves. With a pitiless and clinical eye, he captures the heartbreaking acts of brutality as men we have assumed all along are the good guys become monsters, the distinction between simple right and wrong blurring until their desires lapse into complete depravity. The thing to remember with this troubling sequence is this, that when men who have been trained to kill are subjected to such continual pressure, under inept leadership and devoid of a clear purpose, find themselves in a situation over which they have complete and sadistic power, they are instructed by primal gut-instincts to exploit it. Those of a different generation - my father, included - served in theatres of conflict far removed in character and outcome than that of Vietnam. Circumstances here were completely different to any they would have encountered, and I find their abhorrence and total denial towards Stone's depiction of incidents that he, and military advisor US Marine Captain Dale Dye, actually witnessed, a severe irritation. I, myself, have had military experience with the Royal Marines and continue to have extensive dealings with the Armed Forces to this day. I may not have seen events akin to Stone's parallel to the notorious true-life Mai Lai massacre, but I can attest to witnessing and actually feeling the intense character change that can be made manifest in some individuals when placed in certain situations. Thus, as gruelling and as horrible as it is (the clubbing of the mute, one-legged villager is a scene that I simply have not been able to watch since I first saw Platoon at the cinema back in 1986), Stone is completely justified in showing it, and though it certainly denigrates the psychology of those responsible, he is also astute and honest enough to supply the emotional rationale behind such lawlessness.
“I ain't got no fight with a man who does what he's told, but when he don't, the machine breaks down ... and when the machine breaks down, we break down. And I ain't gonna allow that.”
Elias may be a “water-walker” in the eyes of the scarred-to-hell-and-back and practically indestructible Barnes, but just sit back and enjoy his one-man kamikaze missions, the first one a suspenseful search of a NVA tunnel complex. The second, and sadly the one that fate has marked out for his heroic martyrdom, is a wonderfully filmed do-or-die rampage through the ground-mist-shrouded foliage towards the enemy. I love that shot of him, all alone, psyching himself up for his charge, and then his gung-ho holler of defiance as he races through the ranks of a bewildered flanking squad of NVA. Listen out for the stuttering single-shot bursts that Stone and Dye are keen to put across - none of that Rambo-type rapid-fire nonsense of unending ammunition. It's stunning stuff, adrenaline-fuelled and exquisitely directed, and photographed with lush deep lenses that pitch you into the action right alongside him. Dafoe has, of course, become legendary due to his iconic poster-boy pose. In reality, the almost Christ-like imploring of his outstretched arms during his final, agonised moment, a heartrending plea to the choppers that will never get to him in time, was vilified in some quarters as being far too obvious and heavy-handed. But I find the imagery utterly crucial to Stone's visualising of all the horror, all the pain and all of the insane stupidity of war in one proudly audacious, soul-piercing shot. Even without Barber's Adagio For Strings searing a musical pitch that your own choked breath is struggling not to emulate - that final note goes so high and on for so long as to be practically unbearable, doesn't it? - it would be devastating to watch. But with it rising up and up as Elias reacts to blood-squibs that don't actually go off, that famous quote that used to adorn the poster about the film being “so intense you'll think your heart will explode” doesn't sound like ridiculous hyperbole, after all.
“Y'all loved Elias and ... now you wanna kick ass. Well, here I am ... all by lonesome ... ain't nobody gonna know.”
Much is made about Elias and Barnes being the opposite of each other, the yin and yang of the platoon. But, as much as the two are poles apart in attitude and morals, they are actually the two opposing sides of the same character, the Jeckyll and Hyde that exists within anyone caught up within the maelstrom of war. A good leader would exhibit the traits of both of these experienced soldiers - the practical, no-nonsense bravado of Barnes (“the eye of our rage ... and through him, our Captain Ahab”) and the selfless and protective reasoning power of Elias (“No, I move faster alone.”) - but it serves Stone's story to split this turbulence into two distinct personalities. Of the pair, Barnes is, by far, the more complex. Haunted, powerful and cold-hearted he may be, but he, nevertheless, would be more likely to get you back in one piece than the almost cavalier Elias who, despite his noble heroism, has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The atrocities in the village could perhaps have been avoided if he hadn't taken his search for the missing Manny too far away. Stone asserts that when Barnes comes to Rhah's bunker after the poster-boy event, he is there to, somehow, make amends with Elias' buddies. I don't see it that way at all. To apologise, or make peace, are completely alien concepts to him. He feels guilt over what has happened, most certainly, but his motivation is more one of brute challenge. “Talking about killing? Y'all experts? Y'all know about killing?” Barnes' own vicious spirit is egging him on to rub their noses in it. Perhaps he even believes that he can finally vanquish Elias and his free-wheeling, new wave code of ethics and honour from his war, once and for all, with a stand-alone confrontation. Perhaps he needs to regain the fear that Taylor once had for him. “Proof's in his eyes. When you know, you know!” Either way, the old school military types I know once again had a field day with this gross in-rank misbehaviour, failing once again to grasp the inherent contradiction of an army with no real comprehension of exactly who their enemy is.
“I'm telling you I got a bad feeling about this, I don't think I'm gonna make it ... y'know what I mean?”
“Everbody gotta die sometime, Red ...”
Platoon is a simply staggering movie. Everything about it works perfectly. The randomness of the contacts, the loss of individuals in haphazard, matter-of-fact incidents, the moments of brevity that seem all the more precious because they are so fleeting, and the sense of the passage of time - only a year's tour of duty that sees kids become men and men become gods and demons - is excellently captured by a filmmaker who was there and saw it all. Particularly electrifying are the recreation of the sudden skirmishes - enemy soldiers melting from out of the shadows, suicide-bombers running riot within the camp, a terrified soldier dressed in rags and covered with blood fleeing for his life from an attacking force that “ain't stopping for shit!” This frank and revealing honesty may be damning and uncompromising, but as a lesson to be learned, Platoon works better than any book or documentary that I have ever encountered. The place and the era is so spellbindingly rendered that, despite what Dale Dye says in his commentary, I can smell the jungle. Some critics try to pick fault with the film's lack of personality with regards to the enemy, the NVA or the VC. But, that's missing the point entirely. This is what happened to Stone, or an amalgamation of things that took place whilst he was there, and if he never saw the enemy having lunch or playing cards then how can he honestly portray it? Platoon is the grunt's daily view of the in-country war-zone, and it is no more operatic and intensely-wrought than the real-life emotions experienced by those who fought there. With brilliantly drawn characters, a timeless conflict between the heart and the soul and some mind-blowing battle sequences, this movie ranks as one of the all-time greats. This is actually a rare occurrence of the Academy getting it right, all the more auspicious because it meant that America was finally getting to understand what it had done to itself. Platoon opened doors to Vietnam veterans that had been locked and barred beforehand and, ironically, that is all the appreciation that Oliver Stone (who would even go a step further in this direction with the true story of Ron Kovic in Born On The Fourth Of July) really wanted. Though the four Oscars would obviously open doors for himself, professionally, as well.
“The war is over for me now, but it will always be there - the rest of my days. As I am sure Elias will be - fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called possession of my soul ... there are times since that I have felt like a child born of those two fathers ...”
Folks, I award Platoon ten out of ten unequivocally. From a technical standpoint it is exemplary filmmaking - the photography and direction are peerless. On a script level, the dialogue is rich and earthy, eloquent yet racially colloquial, and always totally realistic and in-character. The acting, as I've already stated in simply magnificent. But none of this really matters when compared to the sheer visceral power of the film and its tragic/majestic imagery. In his heart of hearts, Oliver Stone just could not improve on this film in any way. Painful to watch and undoubtedly painful to make, Platoon is also ironically as much of a recruiting film as Tom Cruise's Top Gun. When I, and my fellow new recruits (or “Noddies” as we were called) had to stand up in a huge sports hall and say exactly what it was that had inspired us to join up, I was amazed at the number who claimed Stone's ode to the fallen in a corrupt, and used, war had been the galvanising factor. For me it was primarily the book Bravo Two Zero, which is again somewhat ironic considering that the events described therein are just as harrowing and off-putting about what can happen to a soldier.
For my money, Oliver Stone - still an excellent filmmaker - would never again come close to a work of such intensity and genius as Platoon.