A neophyte recruit in Vietnam finds himself caught in a battle of wills between two sergeants, one good and the other evil.
Two movies more than any others have shaped how post-Vietnam generations perceive that war: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Both are more about Americans and the conflict’s effect on them than they are about the Vietnamese, or the detailed particulars of how the war was conducted, however, and to that extent they both have more in common with films like Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) or Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978).
But where Coppola’s Apocalypse Now turned the jungle into an almost mythic setting, which could stand in for the horror of any war, Stone’s movie is more closely rooted in the historical event. It hews closer to the conventions of the combat genre, no doubt partly thanks to the writer-director’s own personal experiences in Vietnam, where he served first as a civilian teacher and later as an infantryman.
Like many of Stone’s films, it addresses major (and mostly US-specific) issues from a strongly moral position, but achieves this through a narrative focused on individual men’s experiences of those issues. Here, the character Chris (Charlie Sheen), arriving in Vietnam in 1967 to join his infantry platoon, is a clear stand-in both for Stone and for the audience; much of the film’s message is communicated (and communicated again, and again, and again, in Stone’s characteristically over-emphatic style) through Chris’s imagined letters to his grandmother.
A volunteer like Stone, Chris begins his tour in Vietnam driven by idealism, but soon finds “we’re fighting each other when we should be fighting them”. “Them” being the Vietnamese, who play no significant part in the movie except to illustrate the depravity of some Americans. (Of course, Platoon is hardly unique among war films in this respect.)
As 1967 progresses into 1968, the conflicts among the troops are concentrated into one Manichean opposition, between the ruthless, violent Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the more thoughtful, less aggressive Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe). Inevitably Chris, like his fellow soldiers, has to take a side. Which side the film will take is (like everything else in Platoon) obvious from the beginning, and the embarrassingly Christ-like visual portrayal of Elias is one of many examples of Stone’s excessive underlining.
Still, for all that Platoon’s philosophising can be somewhat sophomoric, what it lacks in subtlety or profundity it often makes up for in drama and performances. Several sequences stand out, notably the first, tensely edited nighttime appearance of the Vietcong in the jungle; a long section at a Vietnamese village where Barnes commits what might be a war crime, and the gulf between him and Elias becomes uncrossable; and the maelstrom of the final battle.
Stone and his frequent cinematographer Robert Richardson add much to the atmosphere visually, too, with a strongly green palette and emphasis on nature (rain, water, sky, insects, leeches) giving the impression that the soldiers are being swallowed by their surroundings. The Vietnamese troops are indistinguishable from the Americans and both are indistinguishable from the jungle.
Though few characters in the large cast are developed far, those that Stone’s own screenplay does spend time on are generally well-acted. Berenger’s Barnes is perhaps a little too glaringly a villain, but Dafoe as Elias gives the film’s most memorable performance. And it’s all the more effective because his character (modelled on a real soldier Stone knew in Vietnam) also comes across as slightly crazy, just in a less destructive way. Sheen is lumbered with a difficult part—as a proxy for the audience he can’t be too idiosyncratic, and certainly there’s a risk of his Chris seeming too good to be true. But his early naivety, his gradual disillusionment, and the brutalising effects of the conflict on his character are all credible.
In smaller parts, Kevin Dillon as the psycho infantryman Bunny who sets a local’s hut aflame as casually as he lights a cigarette, John C. McGinley as the nervy Sergeant O’Neill (frightened by Bunny), and Reggie Johnson as a soldier who wants even less than the rest of them to be there, all stand out. Also notable in one of the film’s more interesting roles is Mark Moses as Lieutenant Wolfe, an ineffectual officer who tries to be one of the guys and isn’t really in command of his men, leaving the way open for Barnes to dominate the platoon; perhaps the lieutenant isn’t as amoral as his sergeant, but he doesn’t try to stop Barnes’s excesses, either.
Platoon wasn’t Stone’s first cinematic treatment of the war (at New York University he had made a short about a veteran called Last Year in Vietnam), and nor would it be his last. He followed it up with Born on the Fourth of July (1989(, returning with that film to the situation of veterans as well as the experience of combat, and then with Heaven & Earth (1993), providing a Vietnamese (and female) perspective. It was Platoon, though, which elevated him to the top rank of directors, earning critical acclaim as well as enormous box office revenue and winning four Academy Awards, for ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Director’, ‘Best Film Editing’ and ‘Best Sound’.
The war in Vietnam was closer in time back then, of course. Indeed, in 1986, the events of Platoon were much closer than we are now to 1986. That may explain why what seems today like heavy-handedness seemed then like making important points vividly, and whereas relatively few viewers of Platoon in 2021 will have lived through the Vietnam era, in 1986 many would have had that experience, whether in the jungle or protesting on the streets.
Still, while what it’s saying is difficult to disagree with, and while it does undeniably have strengths simply as a well-told war movie, Platoon does lay on the rhetoric a little too thickly for its own good. Perhaps Stone doesn’t go as far as he would in JFK (1991) five years later—where he frequently abandons any pretence of giving us a normal plot and characters and simply lectures the audience instead—but even so, the making of points in Platoon can get in the way of telling the story. The overuse of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings: on the soundtrack (which otherwise features an appropriate mix of music from Jefferson Airplane to Otis Redding, as well as an original score by Georges Delerue) is symptomatic.
So it would, surely, be a better film without what the writer Michael Carlson has called Stone’s “Western Union moments.” Along with the death of a key character, the most famous of these is perhaps Chris’s observation at the end of the movie: “we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves, and the enemy was in us.” That was already well-known to audiences in ’86 before they even entered the cinema, and they certainly hadn’t been given a chance to forget it during Platoon’s two-hours.
But while Stone’s relentless repetition of a thoroughly familiar idea can become tiresome, Platoon’s setting, its performances, and some key scenes still manage to immerse you in its world. It’s not quite the classic it’s sometimes held up to be, and it can seem crude and simplistic even alongside Apocalypse Now (itself hardly the subtlest of movies), but it remains a powerful film as well as an important one in the progress of Stone’s career and of Vietnam war cinema.
USA • UK | 1986 | 120 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • VIETNAMESE
writer & director: Oliver Stone.
starring: Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, Mark Moses, Corey Glover, Johnny Depp & Chris Pedersen.