Cinema Quickie: Platoon (1986)

I’m willing to wager that the coronavirus pandemic has been largely terrible for everyone. However, I’ve been fortunate to discover one upside of self-imposed quarantining: it’s freed up a few hours in my everyday life that I’d otherwise spend on transit or other mundane activities.

Faced with a newfound surplus of free time, I opted to allocate some of it towards filling in some of my historical and cultural “blind spots.” Platoon, the 1986 Vietnam movie by writer/director Oliver Stone, is one of them.

If there’s a “Vietnam War Movie Trifecta,” I would assume it would include Platoon, along with Apocalypse Now (1979) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), two movies I have seen and enjoyed. However, if such a trifecta did exist, Platoon would certainly be the black sheep of the bunch. From what I can understand, the film isn’t nearly as beloved as Coppola or Kubrick’s efforts, especially in a contemporary context.

After watching Platoon for the first time, I can see why. From the get-go, Stone sets you up for a bleak, morally-grey tale about losing yourself to war. But overall, the film’s messaging oscillates between being effective and melodramatically overt.

There are moments of brilliance. I particularly enjoyed Stone’s exploration of how Platoon’s many characters have transformed — or perhaps devolved — during the course of the war. Some soldiers, like Elias, seem to maintain a sense of moral integrity and compassion. Others, namely Barnes and Bunny — who kill Vietnamese civilians indiscriminately — seem to see Vietnam as a nihlist’s playground.

Stone leaves lots of time for “grunt talk” throughout the film, and during one of those moments, Bunny professes a kind of love for the war. “I like it here,” he says. “You get to do what you want. Nobody fucks with you. The only worry you got is dying. And if that happens, you won’t know about it anyway.” As a younger soldier, you get the feeling that Bunny is either emulating Barnes’ cold-hearted stoicism as a coping mechanism, lying, insane, or perhaps all three. The latter certainly seems appropriate for a morally disorienting and psychologically-ravaging conflict like the Vietnam War.

Barnes in Platoon (1986)

Tom Berenger gives a particularly memorable performance as the menacing Barnes

Another interesting theme Stone explores is wartime favoritism. In Platoon, we regularly see squad leaders sheltering their experienced men from combat whenever possible and sending new recruits to die in their place. But even the hardened veterans aren’t spared their fair share of pain. In a particularly gut-punching scene, Barnes denies a request from his squadmate, O’Neill, to take a sanctioned three-day leave and visit Hawaii to see his loved ones.

The lack of wartime solidarity among allies in Platoon is particularly disheartening because its soldiers are afforded so little. In Platoon’s bleak war-torn world, you can’t expect your squad to allow you a brief reprieve from the violence or even to avoid killing you in cold blood. What you should expect is for them to slowly drag you through the muddy depths of depravity towards your inevitable death.

But unfortunately, it seems like every successful thematic moment in Platoon is paired with an equally melodramatic one. Case in point: Elias’s iconic death scene, which Tropic Thunder (2008) only had to embellish somewhat to lampoon several decades later:

There are other ham-fisted moments of schlock, too: Platoon’s protagonist, Taylor (Sheen) confronts Barnes at the end of the film in a “showdown” of sorts. But the moment’s narrative weight is lessened since Barnes is more or less incapacitated and asks for death. Stone (or the film’s editor) also has the bad habit of repeatedly overlaying dramatic scenes with the same tragic musical harmony, which feels particularly contrived and exploitative.

Overall, Platoon has some intriguing moments and compelling themes, but its execution often lacks restraint and finesse. Stone whisks us away from scenes where we could’ve lingered longer and leaves the camera rolling for too long elsewhere. As a result, the film often feels clumsy and cliche — a shame, because amidst its hazy fog of war, Platoon has glimmers of brilliance.

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