Wednesday, October 22, 2014

AFI Top 100: #86 "Platoon"

Tom Berenger in Platoon (1986)

With traveling this past weekend, we didn't get around to watching the week's AFI Top 100 feature until last night. It didn't help that I sort of kept putting it off. The Oliver Stone-directed film, Platoon, comes in on the list at #86; appropriate, considering that's the same year it was released (and the year I was born). That timing coincidence is really the only thing that excited me about sitting down to screen this movie.

The Vietnam, anti-war film is semi-autobiographical for its director, who wrote the script more than a decade before about his own experiences as an enlisted man in combat. The story follows Private Chris Taylor (Martin Sheen Charlie Sheen) as he's dropped in the middle of the Vietnam jungle, the newest recruit to 2nd Platoon. He's green, and he's baby-faced, and no cares about him, because he hasn't earned that yet. He also volunteered for combat, unlike many of his drafted countrymen, so already, none of the men can relate to him.

The dynamics within the platoon take precedence over most of the goings-on with enemy Viet Cong combatants. The platoon is divided into different factions, all led by very competent, experienced, and jaded Sergeants (Barnes, Elias, and O'Brien)—and one not-so-qualified Lieutenant (Wolfe).

It quickly becomes clear to young Chris that the superior officers are playing a dangerous game, testing the loyalties of their men and navigating their morality in increasingly questionable ways. The film focuses on this in-fighting within the regiment, and how political agendas, resentments, and fear can tear a platoon apart.

Vietnam war films are a genre in their own right; their writers and directors handle the themes in a variety of ways, but as a general rule, these movies are not "fun," in even the most liberal sense of the word. In fact, they can be downright trying to endure.

Platoon is both unique and generic in this way. Thematically and, for the most part, visually, it is barely distinguishable from any other film in the Vietnam War genre. This is due to the setting, first and foremost. It all looks the same. The star-studded cast is vast and impressive, and it aides in helping us to separate this from, say... Hamburger Hill—but only a little bit.

That's not to say that Platoon isn't a good film, or a memorable one. It is. In fact, it's pretty fantastic. There's a reason there are verbatim scenes, lines and shots from this movie used in parodies like Tropic Thunder and parts of Forrest Gump. They resonate with the audience and stick with us over time.

Primarily, the film examines the physical demands of war. Or, I should say, it's most effective in showing the physical. True, Platoon does touch on the mental and emotional strains of combat in an unpopular war (it's nearly impossible not to)—but Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Full Metal Jacket are significantly more impactful, in this regard.

The characters that Oliver Stone created are incredibly realistic. Some are boring, some are psychotic, but most are just normal men, biding their time until they can go home. It may be the most relatable anti-war film about Vietnam for this very reason. Tom Berenger plays Sgt. Barnes with an eerie appeal. He is frightening, dangerous, and no doubt, a born leader. It's no surprise that his men defer to his lead, bypassing the commands of more superior officers to follow him.

His polar opposite is Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe). This is one of my favorite roles of Dafoe's, only because he is the moral core of the film, which you wouldn't expect. He is by no means weak, or passive; he is dedicated and skilled, but desperate to maintain his humanity.

Charlie Sheen is... good. It's hard not to compare him to his father, considering Martin starred in the very similar Apocalypse Now seven years earlier. Both Sheens have a naivete that is befitting in their roles. The younger Sheen's voice over narration in Platoon, however, doesn't have the impact that Stone seemed to be aiming for and that the elder Sheen absolutely nailed. It's mild and dispassionate; it doesn't offer anything to the character that the action on the screen doesn't blatantly show. There are forced insights shared with the viewer that are cliche, at best—and at worst, painfully obvious.

The film is well-constructed and solid, but the side characters are more interesting than our protagonist, which is usually a bad sign. Oliver Stone is one of my favorite directors. He doesn't do what's popular (usually), and he isn't afraid to be controversial. Unfortunately, that isn't evident in Platoon. It may be personal to his own story, but in the end, it feels like there's something missing. He doesn't push it far enough for the audience to truly feel what he felt. I know this, because while it was awful and uncomfortable at parts (can't have a Vietnam movie without the obligatory rape scene), I was never forced to look away. I was close, but it didn't happen.

And that's a shame, because given the talent busting at the seams of this movie and the director's own experience, that shouldn't have been a difficult task. Platoon won the Best Picture Oscar of that year, in a year where multiple Vietnam, anti-war films were in the Hollywood pipeline. When it was released, it may have pushed boundaries, but in retrospect, there is better out there to dig deep into the collective wound that is the Vietnam War.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars

Check back next week for #85 on the list, A Night at the Opera (Marx Brothers fun!) — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...