“Feelin’ good’s good enough.” I think I love Willem Dafoe.
DIRECTED BY OLIVER STONE WRITTEN BY OLIVER STONE SCORED BY GEORGES DELERUE
STARRING TOM BERENGER WILLEM DAFOE CHARLIE SHEEN JOHN C. MCGINLEY FOREST WHITAKER
TW: racism, violence, death
The first film to accurately depict the horrors of the Vietnam War. 19-year-old Sheen breaks our hearts in about twenty different ways. U.S. soldiers are no longer presented with hyper-patriotic bias. This was Stone’s therapy and the cast’s nightmare. So much violence and dehumanization against Vietnamese people… be prepared to sob heavily!
As I was scrolling through the AFI 100, I thought, “you know what? There’s a whole lot of war movies on this list. Probably because the people who made this list are a bunch of old white guys. Well, I might as well knock one off the list.” Boy, was I in way over my head.
Platoon is a 1986 film written and directed by Oliver Stone about American soldiers in the Vietnam War. Charlie Sheen plays Chris, a 19-year-old college dropout who enlists voluntarily. Chris is most definitely a self-insert by Stone, who also fought in Vietnam, was about the same age, and served about as long as Chris (a little under a year). Throughout the film, we are right alongside Chris as we watch him go from a quiet, naive boy to a war-hungry and violent man.
My only experience with Oliver Stone was with Natural Born Killers (1994) which was… unenjoyable for me. I expected to see something very similar here which probably influenced my hesitancy towards watching this. However, I found Platoon to be harrowingly immersive, gut-wrenchingly realistic, and totally hypnotizing.
I think the reason why so many war movies are on this list is because the men who make these lists find a deep and unique kinship between men who serve together. It’s shared trauma that allows men to be as close as they are. It’s the only acceptable medium through which intense and sometimes romantic male friendships are allowed. In this film, there is a clear divide between two types of soldiers: salt-of-the-earth, conservative, Confederate flag-toters and mellow, weed-smoking, slow-dancing children of the 60s. In the first group, homophobia and racism is at the forefront of nearly every conversation, resulting in a stiffer atmosphere. In the second group, however, intimacy and love between men is not only normalized, but celebrated. Below is two of my favorite scenes from the “Underworld” where we see the second group hanging out during their down time.
Never again in the film do I feel the deep admiration and second-hand enjoyment for these soldiers. Soon after this sequence, their platoon invades a local Vietnamese village and proceeds to murder, assault, and traumatize the villagers before burning it all to the ground. Seeing Sheen shoot at the feet of a severely disabled man while ordering him to “dance” and shout racial slurs made me sick to my stomach. When Berenger kills the mother of a young girl in front of her and the entire village, I was disgusted. I cried violently and unexpectedly. Suddenly, in a single sequence, all feelings of sympathy I had for Sheen and the rest of the platoon disappeared. It was a strange and unanticipated emotional response that I still don’t fully understand. Maybe it was the feeling of betrayal. Like Stone gave us these characters and said “love them. Trust them.” And we did. And then they broke our hearts.
These characters became reprehensible on purpose. Before this film, Berenger was known as an All-American hero and Dafoe was mostly type-cast as a villain. Sheen was the beloved son of a beloved actor. Stone purposefully cast Berenger as the irredeemable scar-faced monster, Dafoe as the easy-going Jesus figure, and Sheen as every mother’s son turned into a violent and traumatized man. In doing so, Stone forces his audience to recognize both the victims and perpetrators of violence in the Vietnam War in the same exact people.
I don’t want to see another war movie for a little while. This one wiped me out. Overall, I would recommend this movie with a few caveats. Firstly, make sure you give this film your full attention. Secondly, please be aware that the amount of violence in this film is astoundingly realistic and you may not react in the way you expect. Thirdly, be prepared to have your heart put through the wringer.
★★★★☆ 4/5 stars
- “Tracks of My Tears” will now be stuck in my head for the next 10 weeks.
- All those bug bites on Sheen’s neck were real. They shot this in the Philippines jungle.
- Anyone else get literal chills when Sheen yells out “it’s beautiful” during an ambush where everyone dies???
- Martin Scorsese was Stone’s first teacher in film school after he got back from Vietnam. Stone thinks he was the inspiration for Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle based on his quiet and unsettled demeanor post-War.
- I didn’t even talk about Stone’s bootcamp he put the actors through before shooting, but look it up if you’re curious. Apparently it was hell.
- Check out the Unspooled podcast episode on Platoon. Very educational.