The Counterpoint. The realism shines through. I first saw “Platoon” not long after it was released in 1986. The vast majority of Vietnam War movies I thoroughly detest, commencing with “The Deerhunter,” the only movie I have ever rated 0-stars. “Platoon” though is vastly different. And for a good reason. It was the first Hollywood Vietnam war movie that was directed by a veteran of that war. And not just any veteran, who slaps the yellow, red and green tri-color decal on the back of his car. Oliver Stone was 11-Bravo. Infantry. Bizarrely, because he asked to be. For eight months, September 1967 to April 1968 he was with the 25th Infantry Division, based in Tay Ninh province, which is immediately adjacent to a long Cambodian border, including what the press dubbed “the Parrot’s beak.” Stone is also my coeval, with only a month separating our births. There was precisely one year between the commencement of our tours in Vietnam.
Race, religion, sexual orientation, age, and now vaccination status, these are some of the ways we slice and dice humanity into different compartments. In Vietnam, there were yet more categories that defined one’s identity: “RA” and “US.” Those who enlisted and those who were drafted. Charlie Sheen plays Chris Taylor, the semi-autobiographical character who represents Oliver Stone himself. One of the great bits of dialogue from the movie is when a black soldier, obviously a draftee, finds out that Taylor VOLUNTEERED for the infantry: “…what we have here is a crusader…” and when Taylor responds meekly about duty et al. the draftee retorts: “you got to be rich in the first place to think like that.” Another slice and dice was the difference between the “short-timers” and the “FNG’s”, the soldiers who recently arrived, captured by the subject line, which was so true. If one had only 20 days left, it truly was impossible to remember back when one was facing the impossible, seemingly infinite “332.” Another scene that strongly resonated was when one soldier with only a few days left was spared going out on one more patrol and allowed to depart by helicopter for the rear.
Only 5%, maybe 10% at most, of the American soldiers who are authorized to wear that red, green and yellow tricolor experienced what is depicted in this movie. And Stone depicted it brilliantly: it starts with Taylor arriving and seeing the body bags, and then segues into the heat, humidity, insects, snakes, rain, falling asleep on guard duty, carrying too much stuff, FNG screw-ups, worthless lieutenants circumvented, calling in artillery on one’s own position, the “M” on the forehead, written with the soldiers own blood, meaning morphine had been given, and that awful dread, which would sometimes turn into reality, of having one’s position overrun and in the chaos, not knowing who was who.
The essential slice and dice, the very core of this excellent movie that deals with a haunting matter so few others do: the psychopaths and those who tried to retain a shred of human decency. “You just can’t rape her… she is a **** human being.” “What are you, homosexual?” It’s the “332” problem, writ large. It was in all our movies: those (wonderful) French women lining the roads, throwing flowers, as the Americans raced to liberate Paris (and yes, cherie, we had the bubble gum). That was the way it was going to be in Vietnam as we helped the heroic and freedom-loving South Vietnamese… And the reality was, every Vietnamese was the enemy and there were no flowers.
Stone captures that terrible conundrum. Days and days of bugs and humidity, a couple buddies blown up by booby traps, a village with a “rice cache,” but more importantly, actual arms hidden. Only women, children and old men. “Waste it.” For the Vietnamese never to say: “no bic” to a GI, because it is infuriating. After enough rain and mosquitoes, it was understood that ALL the Vietnamese understood English, if you just spoke it loud enough. Tom Berenger does such an excellent job of playing Sergeant Barnes, the psychopath and William Defoe does an equal job playing Sergeant Elias, hardly a bleeding-heart liberal, just someone who somehow has retain an internal moral gyroscope. The platoon is split in two, between the factions. The two sergeants literally get into a fistfight and later, despite (or because of?) Elias’ gyroscope, he and his faction talk of killing Barnes.
More than half a century later, that civil war between the two factions of that particular slice and dice continues, not (fortunately) with violence but by refusing to recognize the validity and honor of those who served and said NO when their time came.
Père Lachaise, France’s most famous cemetery. There are so many threads and themes to this movie, and one involved that cemetery. Stone originally offered the role that Sheen would play to Jim Morrison, of the Doors, who is buried in that cemetery, a site of pilgrimage for many a young woman who was not even alive when Morrison O.D.
In 2018 actor Paul Sanchez, who played Doc in the movie, made a documentary about the making of film, entitled “Platoon: Brothers in Arms.” I definitely intend to watch it, having found the movie on the making of “The Battle of Algiers” utterly fascinating.
Finally, there is: “Happy men don’t enlist.” So proclaimed Alec Guinness, who played the character of Yevgraf, in Dr. Zhivago, as he saw the euphoria and the hats tossed in the air when the Great War commenced. So, why did Stone do it? Maybe the first “mistake” was understandable: a sense of duty, or more likely, to be where the big story was, and like Norman Mailer, already having decided to depict it. But having survived 8 months in the infantry, wounded twice (which the rules said were enough to get you permanently out of the field and perhaps home)… why, oh why, (somehow) transferring to the First Air Cav to be a LRRP? Again, why, oh why, extend beyond the required 365 days? There is still more to this story; hopefully it will be told.
But for what Stone has done in “Platoon,” a perfect antidote to John Wayne’s “The Green Berets,” as Stone intended, 5-stars, plus.