For the longest time I avoided Platoon. I think it was if not a difficult subject at least a film that somehow, I had become wary of. Perhaps I felt I was going to get lectured about how bad the Vietnam Intervention was. After watching Platoon, I found that it was more the morality play about one individual and the high emotional cost of war.
Granted, it was a bit of a lecture. Stone can't help himself. However, it was also highly effective about the emotional cost of war and of a world seemingly gone mad.
Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arrives in Vietnam to serve his country, having dropped out of college. Under the belief that "why should rich kids stay home while the poor kids go and serve", he is eager to do his duty as his father and grandfather have done. Vietnam, however, ain't your daddy's war.
The terrain is difficult, the enemy all around, the jungle brutal, the mission muddled, the men disheartened. Taylor soon sees that his platoon is essentially divided into two camps: the literally battle-scarred Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the more moral Sergeant Elias Grodin (Willem Dafoe), the latter generally known as just 'Sergeant Elias' or plain 'Elias'. Taylor gravitates towards the Elias camp, down to getting high while waiting for combat, while the tougher Barnes group gambles and generally thirsts for war.
After one of their own is mutilated and another two are literally blown away by a booby trap, some of the platoon decide to enact their own revenge. They find a Vietnamese village where certain members, including Taylor, torture and terrorize the villagers, convinced they are working with the Viet Cong. This horror includes one of them beating up a mentally disabled villager and Barnes, enraged at the villagers' refusal to admit they even like the Viet Cong (let alone are in league with them), shooting an unarmed woman when she I think complains about their behavior. More horrors ensue until Elias appears, furious at how the troop has behaved. The Americans take the villagers away as they gleefully burn the village down.
Elias is convinced America is going to lose in Vietnam, believing that we've been kicking other people's asses for so long he figures it's time we got ours kicked. Barnes is worried that a potential court-martial about what happened in the village will be the end of him, so at another battle he takes advantage of the chaos and shoots Elias. As the troop flees they see Elias running, desperate to get away from the Viet Cong, wounded but not dead as Barnes reported.
Taylor is convinced Barnes murdered Elias, but cannot prove it. Barnes makes it clear he has no problem killing Taylor should he decide to try anything against him. However, war calls, and the platoon finds itself under major attack from a massive Viet Cong force. Many are killed or wounded, and the Vietnamese are winning the battle. Barnes and Taylor have a final confrontation, where Taylor enacts justice. As he has been twice wounded, Taylor is sent home, having learned the horror of war and the brutality of man, his innocence shattered beyond repair.
It's curious that Stone is a bit unaware of some of the ironies of his own mind. Platoon for example has a very strong viewpoint when it comes to how the troops in Vietnam came from the poor, the generally uneducated, and minorities and how the rich white people avoided war (drawing the same lessons from Credence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son). Stone failed to notice that in essence he had as his lead...a rich white male who was more educated than his fellow soldiers. In essence, Taylor (the Stone substitute) was picking up 'the white man's burden', as the other soldiers from different racial and educational backgrounds than Taylor/Stone were almost unable to control themselves.
None of them for example questioned the morality of burning villages or raping girls (they required the white Elias and Taylor to do it for them). The other white soldiers, like Barnes or John C. McGinley's Sergeant Red O'Neill, were close to war-crazed or hypocritical (though in fairness, seeing the cowardly O'Neill forced to return to battle after hiding under a corpse to escape the VC onslaught was emotionally satisfying).
Perhaps it is because I believe the vast majority of the men who served in Vietnam weren't crazed loons or war criminals that Platoon doesn't sit too well with me. I don't think Vietnam vets were all girl-raping, village burning terrorists. I just have too much faith in people to really believe this was reflective of the entire war.
That being said I don't think Platoon was meant to reflect the whole of the Vietnam experience. It's how Oliver Stone saw Vietnam, and if that's how he saw it, if this is based on his own experience, then I can't reshape it. He has said it is a morality play, and that is how it should be seen. It is a battle between the moral Elias and the brutal Barnes over which direction the naïve Taylor will take. We place the innocent in a brutal, horrible reality, and see where his moral compass will point. Taylor does slip into an anger about his fellow soldier, but he also sees that war is no excuse for deliberate cruelty (to quote Tennessee Williams).
As a film, Platoon has excellent visuals and a strong, though at times overdone, use of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. The mournful piece, one of the greatest pieces of music ever written (by an American or from anywhere really), is the theme of Platoon, underscoring (no pun intended) the theme of innocence lost. I say 'overdone' because when we hear it once we already know that Platoon is an elegy for an America lost. However, you don't have to beat us over the head with 'THIS IS A TRAGEDY'.
Audiences are smart enough to get it.
As a side note, wonder what would have happened if Tiesto's version of the Adagio had been used...
However, in all other respects Platoon is an excellent film. The horrors of battle are brought to us in stark, unsparing turns. Charlie Sheen gives a strong performance as the naïve Taylor, and both Berenger and Dafoe as the polar opposites of morality do excellent work. We even get a brief glimpse of a young Johnny Depp before he became almost a self-parody (albeit a highly paid one).
Platoon is in the end I think not about Vietnam. It is about morality: in war and within ourselves. Granted, Platoon also unleashed a torrent of Vietnam-related films, some good, some bad. It has been one of the films that has shaped how we view Vietnam (along with Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and The Deer Hunter...with The Green Berets as an outlier). It is an excellent film, well-crafted, telling the story it wants to tell well.
1987 Best Picture: The Last Emperor