One of my old favorites I revisited recently. This is a complex film. Charlie Sheen is Chris Taylor, a green enlisted man thrown into Vietnam. He has abandoned an elite college and lifestyle in the United States to learn what it means to be at war. His two commanding officers are Tom Berenger's Barnes and Willem Dafoe's haunting Elias. Barnes and Elias represent two forces battling for Taylor's soul. Barnes is the brutal, animalistic and savage win at all costs warriors. Elias is the inherently peaceful and good soul, who is nonetheless skilled at warfare.
The supporting actors are great as well. Kevin Dillon as a bloodthirsty grunt named Bunny and John C. McGinley as O'Neill, Barnes' sycophantic Lieutenant, are both phenomenal. But while the performances are stellar what sets this film apart is its treatment of the material. It deviates from the scope of many Vietnam films, and many war films before it in general.
Apocalypse Now has always struck me as more Conrad and less Saigon City than other war movies. Vietnam is an appropriate setting for the journey into the darkness of Man, but much about the war itself is lost in Coppola's literary treatment of the war. Larger than life figures like Duvall's Kilgore and Brando's Kurtz cover over existing and relevant critiques of class and race inherent to the US's involvement in Vietnam.
The Deer Hunter is also limited in the scope of how it treats characters. It's examination has a definite bent towards class, to be certain, but its study is more about the effect war in general has on people and less about the uniqueness of Vietnam as a political event for shaping a generation. The film reflects less on the question of "Should we have been in Vietnam?" and more on "What is the result for those who fought there?".
The second half of Full Metal Jacket (released a year later than Platoon) is still less a movie about Vietnam and more about war in general. Its end with the gun wielding female character is interesting in terms of the inversion of traditional notions of masculinity and warfighting, but speaks more and more to universal conceptions about war than what specifically Vietnam meant. And the first half of that movie, a stinging indictment of militarism, haunts far more viewers than the tepid second half.
Platoon says a lot of the things that these movies say, and says it better. While on a grand scale I prefer the literary artistry of Apocalypse Now, Platoon punches me right in the gut everytime I see Elias fall as the Viet Cong chase him while the helicopters circle above his bloody body. The tagline for the movie was "This is the first real movie about Vietnam". We can interpret this several ways. One is that its "real" in the sense that its depiction of the battles is realistic. Indeed, military advisers on the film praised its realism over and above that of battle scenes in Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter. It also opened up a space for more brutal representations of war like those found in Hamburger Hill. Showing lots of bodies on stretchers goes a long way to counter the objection from visual rhetoricians that war movies valorize violence and combat. In this movie, combat does not seem glorious. It seems horrible and scary. It could also be "the first real movie about Vietnam" because it is a real movie in the sense that it is a truly great film- that it is high art and is really specifically about Vietnam as an Event.
The film is also a meditation on what the idea of "enemy" means. The Viet Cong are depicted and shadowy and faceless. They are efficient fighters. They are not above brutality. But for Stone the enemy is within- within the platoon and within the soul. Stone certainly seems to support both Elias and Barnes as leaders over the indecisive nominal Lieutenant of the platoon whose incompetence results in friendly fire deaths. Elias, for all his goodness, is cut down by Barnes. Is this saying that to survive in war you have to be an overwhelmingly brutal character? Perhaps. But then again the idea of Elias is what motivates Taylor to get through the violence and eventually kill Barnes. After all, it is Barnes who cares not for the slaughter and rape that occurs in a village when the platoon is mad with bloodlust after some of their number are tortured by the VC.
Two things about this film I do not like. The voiceovers to me say things that the director could show. In fact, I think the movie shows all of these things. The voiceovers that talk about how Taylor misses home or how the war is a different world are unnecessary. Any viewer can get this from his mannerisms, his discomfort on the trail, his suffering during the silence of a night ambush. His narration at the end of the film is unnecessary for sure.
The second thing I do not like is the climax. As Barnes is poised to kill Chris, a napalm blast brushes him off of Sheen. Burned near to death by the blast, he is an easy target for Taylor to kill. While Talyor now shows himself capable of really killing, the message is hollow. In order to defeat Barnes, Taylor needed the help of a higher power. One reading is that this indicates that the violence of war is so powerful that to fight it is near hopeless. I hold out hope that the meaning of the scene is that there is a higher power behind all that is good and right even when it shows up in wartime, on a violent palette that at all times tries to cut off and annihilate goodness. The napalm from the heavens is a sign that there is some greater ethics that rewards the followers of Elias and punishes Barnes. The problem, however, is that war is indiscriminate. It spares none. Convenient that in the final pitched battle Barnes and more of his followers fall than adherent of Elias. So while I support the ending message, it contravenes the stark and powerful realism of the rest of Stone's film. I do love this movie, despite the end.