Long before I was born, my grandfather crossed the ocean to join a war that had already been ongoing for years. Nations had allowed authoritarian strongmen to take control of state, and they in turn waged war on their neighbors. From what I understand, the fighting had pretty much ended by the time my grandfather arrived, but judging by the photographs my grandmother showed me, he was able to see the awful results of these criminal states. With its global scope, good vs. evil narrative and large set piece battles, screenwriters found the Second World War readily adaptable, and movies about the conflict appeared early and often. When the subsequent generation went to war in Southeast Asia, putting it onscreen was a more complicated affair. The films that did appear focused less on battlefield heroics than on the moral and psychological complexities of the conflict. Then, a decade after Saigon’s fall to the communists, Hollywood produced perhaps that generation’s definitive statement on the Vietnam War: the unsettling Platoon.
The movie starts with Private Chris Taylor (Sheen) arriving in Vietnam to take his place in an Army infantry platoon. With an ineffectual lieutenant in command, de facto leadership falls to the platoon’s NCOs, particularly the brutal Barnes (Berenger) and compassionate Elias (Defoe). After Barnes’ crimes bring the two into open hostility, the men of the unit align with one or the other, initiating a war-within-a-war; combating the enemy while distrusting one another.
I think this is the most I have ever liked Charlie Sheen. In fact, this may be the only time I have liked Charlie Sheen. His character, Private Taylor, is relatable, human and engaging. I had a hard time getting excited about watching this film. The world has felt so heavy and violent and defeating, and the idea of sitting down to watch a movie about a grueling, devastating, unwinnable war did not exactly feel like how I wanted to spend my free time. However, Platoon did a good job of showing the confusion and desperation that militarism breeds. The characters are interesting and strong. None of them are perfect; they are engaging in large part because of what they bring out in each other. As awful as he was, I couldn’t take my eyes off of Barnes, for example.
This film also left me pondering masculinity, particularly in the context of war. The friendships between the men in this particular film become so fierce, they almost take on a hint of romance (not of a sexual nature, but one of deep love). You could sense the deep admiration Taylor feels for Elias for example. The feud between Barnes and Elias is not unlike an inner feud a soldier under duress might have with two sides of himself or herself – it definitely kept my attention.
We’ve gotten so used to thinking of Charlie Sheen as a lecherous coke ghoul that it’s easy to forget he was once a promising young actor. And for the record, I see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as his finest work.
Dafoe and Berenger both deservedly received Oscar nominations for Platoon. As characters, they personify the divided nature of America during its involvement in Vietnam. They are the conflicted psyche of a democratic republic at war- particularly a messy counterinsurgency- played out as two feuding NCOs.
For Taylor, they are the angel and devil on his shoulder as he navigates the ethics of guerilla warfare. For him, the critical scene in the farming village plays out like a religious conversion experience. He enters as rage-filled as any soldier. Then, during Elias’s intervention, the camera rests on Taylor’s face as he processes what he sees. Minutes later, it is now Taylor intervening, stopping the sexual assault of a civilian woman. Reviews I’ve read on Platoon refer to Elias as “Christ-like” and indeed his iconic death scene suggests a crucifix-style martyrdom. (One word on Elias’s death scene- it appears on the DVD menu screen! Way to spoil the plot for first-time viewers, MGM. I had to be extra quick with the remote before Katy looked up at the television.)
Let me pose a question about Barnes: he is depicted as having facial scars, presumably from an earlier combat injury. Is this just a little too on the nose for a movie with this level of sophistication; the old ‘twisted mind in a mangled body’ stereotype? Not to mention a little mean toward the folks with facial wounds who aren’t monsters?
I agree about how the film portrays the relationships between the characters. It really sold me on the camaraderie that exists between the men of the platoon. The scenes of them getting high and singing along to Motown are as affecting in their own way as the battle sequences. In the scenes where soldiers are sent home, no one hesitates to go, but there is a palpable sense of sadness at parting.
I feel very grateful that I have a partner so thoughtful he would try to avert a screen lest it serve to spoil a plot! I didn’t even know Mouse did that, so I am grateful. That would have in fact ruined the film a little. So to this question of Barnes: I saw the scar on his face to indicate a toughness, an alpha maleness. He can’t be bested – that’s what I thought it was meant to indicate. He’s lived through everything and will live through it yet again. He wears it as a badge of pride. I see Mouse’s point, but my read on it was just that it was meant to assert his authority and almost immortality.
I also definitely see the Christlike representation of Elias, now that you point it out. He was definitely my favorite character in the film. Taylor aspires to be Elias, but has Barnes in him as well. Again, it really seemed like each was emblematic of what war brings out in you. That seemed the case more than them just being characters.
I also want to add that the sexual assault scene was hard for me to watch, and it is hard for me to try to muster some concern for the humanity of men who engage in that, even under duress. I tried, but those characters were marked for the rest of the film for me. It was also sort of surprising to watch Charlie Sheen defend a woman under attack by screaming, “She is a human being,” and pulling her away from them. I’d like to see more of Taylor in the life of the real Sheen.
Mouse makes a good point in terms of Ferris Bueller, though. I stand corrected.
No, Platoon is no good time movie. It does make me think of the montage from The Naked Gun where Frank Drebin and Elvis’s wife are falling in love. They’re exiting a movie theater laughing and joking, and the camera pans up to the marquee: they’ve just watched Platoon. Watch on Youtube if you need something light. It holds up.
Also making an appearance is character actor John C. McGinley, who has made a career playing abrasive characters, often in military dramas. With actors like that, I always wonder how much their real personality matches their onscreen persona. Seemingly little for McGinley, who- as the internet tells me- was named Dad of the Month by by iParenting for advocating for special needs kids, inspired by raising his son with Down syndrome. And he likes to golf with John Cusack. I love the internet.
It’s been a few months since our last entry, so let’s acknowledge the obvious. A lot’s been going on in the world, and we did take our time getting to this. While watching the Republic dishonor itself, it was difficult to motivate ourselves to sit through a film exploring the perversion of national identity and duty into something violent and ugly. Escapist cinema, Platoon is not. So, sorry for the delay to anyone who may have wondered where we went. When we consulted the Randomizer to pick our next Best Picture, we were praying for something lighter. We got our wish…sort of.
My heart and spirit need our next watch. Platoon is powerful, but it took a lot to muster sitting down for it. Mouse hasn’t seen our next film, though – and I plan to sing to him the whole way through. Stay tuned!
Also nominated in 1986:
Children of a Lesser God
Hannah and Her Sisters
A Room with a View
Next film: THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)