Like many Americans in 1986, I went to see Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning “Platoon” under the impression that the critics were right — that it would be one of those existential cinematic experiences that might help to heal and even exorcise the demons of a troubling experience our country was still grappling with a full decade after the fall of Saigon. In that way, the film was almost certainly over-hyped. If anything helped us get over the spectre of Vietnam, it was American military victories in Grenada and the first Gulf War, not a film that plays The Worst Hits of Vietnam — compressing MyLai, Tet, drug use, and fragging, into a tight, compelling, emotionally-draining 120 minutes.
My wife, however, was interested in the experience for another reason. She lost a brother in combat over there and wanted to better understand what the final months of his life had been like as a new recruit. And this is where the film memorably succeeds. In-between all the cinematic drama and leftist politicking, the story of Charlie’s Sheen’s Chris, a green recruit who volunteered, is the story of a young young man who loses his innocence while grappling with an impossible choice. Will he choose survival in the form of the devil Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) or will he openly defy the seemingly indestructible Barnes and side with the Christ-like figure of Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe).
This classic theme along with the sure-handed direction of a young director who himself volunteered and earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in Vietnam, gives the story an authentic feel thanks, in large part to the many day-to-day details that ring so true. Because we’re Chris and therefore experience Vietnam through his eyes, everything from the incessant bugs and foul-smelling latrine duty to the awkwardness of not knowing your peace among the men and the cold terror of hearing movement in a pitch-black jungle, feels both visceral and immediate. Long after Stone has had his political say, these are the elements that stay with you.
It’s no secret I’m an unabashed fan of both Oliver Stone and “Platoon.” Earlier this year I ranked the film as #7 on my all-time greatest left-wing film countdown. Seeing it again on Bluray, however, is an entirely different experience. The crispness of the picture, the detail, the sound — in may ways it was like seeing it again for the first time.
The extras are well worth the price of the DVD alone. Actor and military advisor Dale Dye is featured prominently with his own commentary track and as a vital part of the documentaries — one that looks at the making of the film and another that involves a discussion with a dozen or so veterans after a screening. Nothing goes so far as to challenge Stone’s political viewpoint of the war, but the director himself is also featured and is nowhere near as partisan as you might expect.
This is how I closed my earlier review:
On a pure storytelling level, Stone’s pacing is exceptional, the individual battle scenes are all memorably staged, and the tension that builds throughout is perfectly calibrated. Even better are the three central performances, but there’s not a single false note among the many familiar faces in the supporting cast (Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon, Forest Whitaker, John C. McGinley). A real standout, though, is the great Keith David as King, a world-wise, charismatic grunt with a beautiful singing voice, a way with words (even if he can’t spell), and a personal code that’s hard to nail down, though you know you definitely want him on your side.
“Platoon” is also the film that gave Capt. Dale Dye his start, and with a single line of dialogue about making sure those who commit war crimes are punished, the retired Marine Captain turned technical advisor not only moves the plot and characters to the final breaking point, he reminds us of the unshakable honor that has always guided the real-world men and women who protect this country.
He is our Elias to Stone’s talented but damaged Barnes.
It’s almost impossible to believe 25 years have passed since the film’s release. Part of the reason that’s hard to fathom is due to how well “Platoon” holds up. Nothing about it has aged, which is the only test of a true masterpiece.