Sunday 18 September 2011

Movie Review: Platoon (1986)

An intense front-line view of a most muddled conflict, Platoon is a close-up examination of the human damage caused by war, and also one of the best war movies ever made. Director Oliver Stone wrote the story based on his personal experiences in Vietnam, and his narrative is unblinking in its portrayal of all that is wrong with war, from politicians sacrificing the lower classes to the resultant irreparable emotional devastation of those who do the killing.

Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is a college student who has willingly enlisted in the army, and he arrives for combat duty in Vietnam of 1967. Oppressive heat, low morale, disgruntled troops, ineffective jungle patrols and clueless commanders are just some of the challenges that he immediately faces, and this is before any enemy encounters.

Chris learns that two fearless sergeants are the de facto leaders of his Bravo Company: Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) stands up for his men and encourages a loose attitude and plenty of camaraderie. Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) is all intensity, having long since adopted a kill'em all individualistic attitude. The men of Bravo Company are divided, with some supporting Elias and others idolizing Barnes. Elias and Barnes are on an inevitable collision course, and after Barnes loses all discipline during a raid on a Vietnamese village, they become mortal enemies.

Chris witnesses the intensifying conflict between the men and survives skirmishes of ever increasing ferocity with the North Vietnamese Army, culminating in a massive gory and desperate battle, during which Chris has to apply all that he has learned from both Elias and Barnes just to try and live for another day.

Stone enriches Platoon by not glossing over the little details that dominate a soldier's experience: the insatiable bugs feeding on human flesh; the endless marching in the impenetrable jungle; digging trenches in the energy-sapping heat; the devastating fatigue causing soldiers to fall asleep at critical moments; and the endless, tense waiting for encounters with the enemy.

And when these enemy encounters do occur, Stone, cinematographer Robert Richardson, and editor Claire Simpson emphasize the overwhelming chaos and confusion. Platoon's battle scenes play out in limited light, the enemy mostly seen as shadows, tactics and strategies utterly lost in the anarchy of the battlefield.

The central theme of Platoon is the contrast in the education of Chris at the hands of Elias and Barnes. Both are exceptional warriors, but while Elias has retained his humanity and is still killing for a greater purpose, Barnes has adopted killing for the sake of killing and no longer cares to delve into the subtleties of when should the killing be justified.

Both men have their followers, and Platoon poses the question as to which form of soldier is needed to win a war. At the personal level, Stone ends the film with Chris standing at the most important fork in his life, having absorbed and internalized characteristics from both Elias and Barnes. Whether he becomes more like Elias or more like Barnes will determine which part of Chris will die, and when.

Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe lead the testosterone drenched cast, both diving into their roles as jungle combatants with stone-faced relish. Charlie Sheen, with a successful future career still in his hands should he choose not to snort it, finds the balance between the bewilderment of the new recruit thrown into battle and the grim determination of a smart soldier willing to learn and survive. A large supporting cast of at-the-time relative unknowns includes the likes of Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp and Kevin Dillon.

Platoon condemns war by staring at its horror, a reminder that while the dead represent the tragedy, the survivors and those who do the killing are plunged into the same universe of infernal misery.

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