I used to tend bar near Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which, in the early ’90s, was Crack Cocaine Central. We had an interesting regular: Freddy, in his mid-30s, wore combat boots, an army jacket, skull tattoos, an drab-olive green bandana, and lamented that he’d missed his mission in life. Freddy felt deeply that he should have been in “The ‘Nam.” Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” shows why.
The actual Vietnam War was hell on earth, yet enough time has passed—and Hollywood’s tendency to romanticize war being what it is—that, knowing America, a nostalgic subculture that romanticizes and fetishizes that war has been generated.
I feel it myself (as I imagine many men do, who never served) when I’m in an Army-Navy store and see beret-wearing skulls on Vietnam-era patches saying “82nd Airborne, Death From Above,” “Mess With the Best, Die Like the Rest,” “Agent Orange: Sprayed and Betrayed,” “Di Di Mau Beaucoup Dinky Dau,” or the spooky patch of the AC-130 Spectre Gunship. For civilians, these things have morphed into funhouse-horror items akin to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink 1960s hot-rod art.
The quality Vietnam films are “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Hamburger Hill,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Casualties of War,” “We Were Soldiers,” and “Rescue Dawn.”
But it was director Oliver Stone, telling the tale of his own been-there-done-that experience, that above all others contributed to this American ’Nam-nostalgia. The Best Picture-winning “Platoon” is regarded by many in the military community as the most realistic combat film ever produced.
‘You Gotta be Rich to Think Like That in the First Place’
In 1967, guilt-ridden Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) ditches his Ivy League education to go fight the Viet Cong with the 25th Infantry (Bravo Company). Which is exactly what Oliver Stone did—ditched Yale University and enlisted as a combat-infantry soldier.
Taylor arrives starry-eyed and idealistic in Da Nang, South Vietnam, and first thing off the transport plane, he’s seeing stacked black bodybags. The new recruits get catcalls from the outgoing troops: “…new meat! You dudes gonna love the ‘Nam, for (expletive omitted) ever!”
But it’s the sunken-eyed, “thousand-yard stare” of one gaunt-faced soldier that sears Taylor’s brain and kicks off a series of letters to his grandmother, which we hear via voice-over, about the nightmare he soon realizes he’s strayed into: constant exhaustion, confusion, fear, fire ants, booby traps, cobras, virulent racism, rotting Viet Cong corpses in the jungle, and an endless panorama of bloody death. If it sounds familiar, it’s because Charlie Sheen’s dad, Martin Sheen, starred in, and did the same kind of narrative voiceover in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”
Taylor’s elite ivory tower swan dive into the mud of the ‘Nam brings him in contact with salt-of-the-earth Americans; as he says: “They come from the end of the line, most of them, small towns you never heard of: Pulaski, Tennessee; Brandon, Mississippi; Pork Bend, Utah; Wampum, Pennsylvania…”
Taylor also encounters two sergeants. There’s the battled-scarred Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), a hardcore, menacing, true representative of the USA’s venerable Southern warrior tradition. He believes in the war and will run roughshod over anything and anyone to win it. On the other hand, the heartfelt hippie-warrior Elias (Willem Dafoe) has a moral compass that hasn’t yet eroded into sociopathy. These two men are leaders of a cultural division within the platoon.
Heads Versus Drinkers
Taylor gravitates socially and ideologically to the “Heads” (potheads). The “Heads” sanctuary is a subterranean bunker festooned with Christmas-lights, nicknamed the Underground—a sort of soldier speakeasy with a hidden entrance, counter-culture vibe, and dancing to Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.” Taylor undergoes an initiation rite of sorts—inhaling the pot smoke Elias blows into the breach of a shotgun.
These two sergeants, pothead Elias versus hard-drinking Barnes, represent for Chris the battle between good and evil. The war becomes the manhood rite-of-passage Chris was seeking, which he expresses in the following monologue, at the end:
“There are times since, I’ve felt like the child born of those two fathers. But, be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again, to teach to others what we know, and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.”
Clearly Oliver Stone was a disciple of Elias, and “Platoon” was Stone teaching what he knows in the name of goodness. Stone’s youthful idealistic sacrifice was noble, but as the platoon’s resident M-60 machine-gunner, King (Keith David), says, “You gotta be rich to think like that in the first place.” So what lessons does Stone teach? More on that in a minute.
Loss of Honor
Most of the war films made today are heavily influenced by, and mostly directly about, special operations military. Army Special Forces (Green Berets), The Unit (Delta Force), and the SEAL teams put a premium on maintaining the moral high ground. And the American military has always been about the flag and the Bible.
However, Stone’s authentic, gritty, re-creation of the infantry foot-soldier’s Vietnam experience should be watched, keeping in mind what happens when largely uneducated American teenage soldiers, with no other career options—go to war. What happens when soldiers from broken homes, carrying dime-store versions of a moral compass, are put into the jungle with no adult supervision, no sleep, booze, pot, guns, knives, mortars, claymores, lots of killing, and the option to rape and pillage?
I saw “Platoon” in Germany when it first came out. Following its most controversial and brutal scene (most likely based on the horrific My Lai Massacre of March 16, 1968, where a Vietnamese village woman was murdered by U.S. forces to avenge recent deaths of fellow platoon members), there’s a rape scene.
Germany censors the opposite content of what the United States does; Germany censors violence and keeps anything sexual. The U.S. censors sexual content and keeps violence. Oliver Stone shot a horrifying rape scene. The Germans left that in, even though rape is both sex and violence. You can’t find it now on American DVDs. You’ll only (thankfully) find the extremely mild version. The original version was seriously disturbing.
What Does Stone Teach?
Director Stone shows us two things: 1) “Platoon’s” contribution is the depiction of how little-or-no-choice-having, U.S. drafted soldiers comport themselves, as opposed to true-calling, freedom-of-choice warriors like the elite Navy SEALS in “Lone Survivor.”
2) He gives us images of war so powerful that you know they were scorched into Stone’s memory: the haunting thousand-yard stares, and the perfect casting of the young Kevin Dillon (Johnny Drama in HBO’s “Entourage”) as Bunny, the quintessential baby-faced all-American kid with an unholy appetite for destruction and a nightmarish mean-streak.
Further stunning images: the unspeakable atrocities committed by Bunny and the sublime beauty of the jungle; artistic touches, such as the image of a monitor lizard slowly crawling up the stone visage of an ancient Buddha statue.
And again, there’s that funhouse-horror atmosphere, like the one ineffably captured by Steven Spielberg in “Schindler’s List” when the Nazis raid the Jewish ghetto. The climactic nighttime scene of Vietnamese-jungle foxhole-combat footage, lit by falling flares, makes you immediately understand why Freddy who-wished-he-was-in-the-‘Nam thinks he missed out on all the fun.
But the truly brilliant thing Oliver Stone did, and the true star of this movie is Stone’s choice of Samuel Barber’s utterly haunting “Adagio for Strings,” which rivets the beauty and tragedy of this story in the soul like no other war movie before or since.
Lastly, Stone’s criticism of a politics-ridden (in the bad sense) American administration that tied the military’s hands, and didn’t let it fight the war it was capable of, is caustic. America probably needed to be over there, policing the spread of communism.
Director Richard Linklater intended his first big movie, “Dazed and Confused,” to destroy any sense of nostalgia for high school, but ended up making the exact opposite—a cult classic that exudes nothing but nostalgia. Similarly, Stone intended for “Platoon” to obliterate any romantic notions about the Vietnam War. And yet … now we have guys like Freddy running around wishing they’d been there. Any art that generates a tangible, true atmosphere will do this.
“Platoon” received eight nominations and won four Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing). Stone was the first Vietnam vet to direct a movie about the Vietnam War. And it shows.
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Keith David, Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, Francesco Quinn, Reggie Johnson, Chris Pedersen, Corey Glover, Mark Moses
Running Time: 2 hours
Release Date: Feb. 6, 1987
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars