Wednesday, May 18, 2011

War Is Hellish And Disturbing: Platoon Illustrates Well What We Already Know.

The Good: Tension, Acting, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Light on character development and plot, Voiceovers
The Basics: Powerful and graphic, Platoon is a great movie that is difficult to watch more than once.

I hate DVD packaging. I absolutely hate how DVDs and Blu-Ray discs are marketed and packaged. There are two extremes in the packaging of DVDs and Blu-Rays with almost none that fall into the middle ground: they either tell viewers nothing about what the movie or show inside are actually about (marketed as they are to the die-hard fans who are buying the movie or boxed set having already seen it and made it a box office success) or they reveal far too much. In the case of Platoon, the DVD case reveals far too much simply by revealing whose story the protagonist is based upon (I shall not ruin that here). But once that is known, the viewer has no real surprises. Even if it is a fictional account, knowing whose fictional account undermines the emotional intensity of portions of the movie.

This annoyed me especially as I knew nothing about Platoon going into it. My step brother, when I was young, had gotten to see it, which was a big deal as he was eleven at the time and it was a rated-R movie. Outside that, all I knew before ruining my first viewing by looking at the DVD box was what camp counselors had said when I was at summer camps; that the movie was supposedly made more terrifying by being able to hear all the insect noises and the sounds of footsteps while soldiers were going through the woods. So, having heard that, I turned the sound up on my surround sound system and watched the film.

Chris Taylor arrives in Vietnam as a volunteer who dropped out of college to enlist. Immediately, he is thrust into dangerous situations where he is fighting an enemy he almost never sees. The platoon Taylor is a part of is ethnically diverse and effectively led by two opposing sergeants, Barnes and Elias. Barnes, hardened by the war, is brutal and suspicious and while Elias is an efficient and cunning soldier, he has retained his moral core and conscience. Taylor is exhausted, insect-bitten and traumatized by the war almost immediately.

Taylor's group is assigned to find and destroy enemy bunkers as the guerilla fighters use underground tunnels and bunkers that are almost impossible to see. Frequently pinned down by the enemy, who then disappears back into the jungle, Taylor and Third Platoon succeed in finding a large cache of weapons in a village, which Barnes then torches. Sent out after, Barnes and Elias lead the platoon into a bloody and devastating encounter which leaves Taylor even more troubled by the war.

Platoon is very much an average war movie. As such, there is a protagonist who experiences a strong sense of shock as the world he knows is radically changed (this comes in the form of Taylor) and a lot of shooting. Platoon earns its "R" for the graphic depiction of war and it is not for the feint of heart. But director Oliver Stone's direction is problematic in that he makes it too real. Just as soldiers in the field had an impossible task of trying to tell where the enemy was, often there is little ability of viewers to tell who the enemy is and where they are at any given moment.

As well, Platoon is heavy with soldiers using drugs and doing their jobs as soldiers. It also includes the barbarism of war with scenes that include Taylor pulling soldiers off Vietnamese girls (not women, girls) and for as much conflict as there is with the guerilla fighters, there is conflict within the platoon. The viewer's sense of disgust is likely to peak early watching Barnes treat his fellow American soldiers despicably.

What Platoon has is a remarkably personal story of war. Taylor is an empathetic character and the viewer feels bed for him and all he goes through. Even though elements of his disillusionment are so common in war stories they are almost cliches, Taylor is a likable guy and the viewer is likely to be glad early on when he sides with Elias. Taylor may be surrounded by soldiers who are doing loathsome things, but he manages to maintain his humanity for the bulk of the film.

Because Oliver Stone so graphically portrays war, the voiceovers - like letters Taylor is having sent home - seem utterly unnecessary. The viewer does not need to be told how Taylor is feeling or what is going on; the film shows us that perfectly well. And what the film has in surprising quantities is great acting. Cast incredibly well, Platoon includes Keith David, Tony Todd, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Johnny Depp, John C. McGinley and Tom Berenger. All of the men seem plausibly like soldiers. The standout in understated acting, though, comes from Willem Dafoe, who plays Elias. Elias is cool and smart and Dafoe bulked up physically for the role, but retains a level of articulation that makes his relatively moral character plausible.

But the real surprise of Platoon is how good the acting of Charlie Sheen is. Sheen plays Taylor and he is dramatically powerful. Sheen gives a performance that depicts emotional agony exceptionally well, including realistically portraying fear with just his eyes. Who would have guessed that Sheen could act so well? None of his lines are presented with anything but the right emotional resonance that the scene demands and he actually seems entirely plausible with Taylor's character arc.

On DVD, Platoon comes with a documentary on how the film was made, as well as a full-length commentary track with Oliver Stone. There is a second commentary track for the movie with a military advisor discussing the tactics and realism of the movie. There are also trailers for the movie, which give those who enjoy Platoon all sorts of extras worth watching.

Platoon is a difficult film to watch, but it is supposed to be. I finally started considering it above average because I came to accept that the lack of character development was part of the story. Taylor and the men of the Third Platoon do not grow or change (save from live to dead) because they are stuck in a fairly static bad position. The film adequately reinforces the idea that war is hell; for those who didn't know it before, this shows what that hell looks like.

And yes, when the soundtrack is not present, Stone does a great job of enhancing the mood with the jungle noises that surround the soldiers.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project available here! Please check it out!]

For other films about war or the effects of war, please check out my reviews of:
Shutter Island
The Men Who Stare At Goats
G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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