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. Continue reading