Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Defining a « classic » is a tough exercise. And you will have as many definitions as individuals. What’s a « must-see » ? Frankly, I cannot understand why i waited this long to watch Platoon (1986), directed by Oliver Stone, based on his own experience. I was getting a bit tired of war movies, but decided to persevere. I was not disappoitned. For one thing, the cast is incredible : Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Kevin Dillon, Forest Whitaker, even a very young Johnny Depp and Mark Moses (infamous Paul Young in Desperate Housewives !!)

Chris Taylor (Sheen) gave up college to volunteer in Vietnam - he is the narrator and main character of the story. As the days go by and the war escalates, he finds his platoon is torn between two camps : good, represented by cooperative and pleasant Sergeant Elias (Dafoe, magnificent) and evil, represented by violent and seemingly indestructible Sergeant Barnes (Berenger) – the fight becomes both external and internal.

Chris: Somebody once wrote: "Hell is the impossibility of reason." That's what this place feels like. Hell.

Barnes: Shut up! Shut up and take the pain! Take the pain!

Junior: Free your mind and the ass will follow.

Chris: Day by day I struggle to maintain not only my strength but also my sanity. It's all a blur. I have no energy to write. I don't know what's right or wrong anymore. The morale of the men is low, a civil war in the platoon. Half the men with Elias, half with Barnes. There's a lot of suspicion and hate. I can't believe we're fighting each other, when we should be fighting them.

O'Neill: Excuses are like assholes, Taylor. Everybody's got one!

To me, Platoon is one of the finest films ever made, war or otherwise. All actors here are amazing. Chris as a young private is captivating, Barnes is almost scary (he made me shiver with his nonchalant attitude towards life and death) and Willem Defoe is strong but caring.

Elias: What happened today was just the beginning. We're gonna lose this war.
Chris: Come on! You really think so? Us?
Elias: We've been kicking other peoples asses for so long I figured it's time we got ours kicked.

Special points for Mark Moses as the completely overwhelmed Lieutenant. Characters are realistic and well defined, and the supporting characters also deliver a solid performance.

Chris's statement : « I felt like a child, born of these two fathers » summarizes the tone of the whole movie : at times the soldiers feel like Barnes, full of rage and hate, at others they follow on Elias’ common sense. The village massacre scene explains it all : the soldiers want revenge, but ultimately regret the violence they have just witnessed and been a part of.

Chris: I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days. As I'm sure Elias will be, fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called "possession of my soul." There are times since, I've felt like a child, born of those two fathers. But be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again. To teach to others what we know, and to try with what's left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.

Scenes and images are violent and depict the horrors of war, it’s not just about America’s role in Vietnam. There is continuous firing, but my understanding was that the film was more against war and the futility of it than for it. 
I don't know about the realism of this film, but one truly shocking part, as Chris discovers at some point is that his fellow soldiers are either uneducated or poor. The rich and the educated do not go to war, they become high ranking officers, as Mark Moses plays – it is not explicitly said, or maybe I missed dit, but it shows.
The fact that the movie is narrated is also excellent : it involves the viewer directly, as he’s being talked to, and also provides some perspective to make sense of what is happening in front of our eyes.
Other than that the battles are very well filmed : explosions, screaming, fire. When there is no battle we see how tough military can be, people break down, there is racism, elitism, people fight each other. At times it is disturbing,that’s one element to keep in mind. Oliver Stone shows what war is like: exhausting mentally and physically, confusing, mad.

Behind the scenes, I gathered a few facts.

  • Toward the end of the film, Francesco Quinn reaches into a dead Vietnamese soldier’s pocket and pulls something out : he is removing heroin, which VietCong soldiers used as painkiller. Apparently, many US soldiers did the same and became addicts.
  • Seems like Tom Berenger was mostly used to playing good guys, while Willem Dafoe always played villains. Oliver Stone inverted this for Platoon, forcing each actor to get out of his comfort zone. Both received Oscar nominations.

Platoon is a classic, plain and simple.

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