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Platoon: Special Edition

MGM Home Entertainment

Starring Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger

Written and Directed by Oliver Stone

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

You have to give Platoon some credit. Watching Charlie Sheen and fellow soldiers hack their way through the dense jungle brush of Vietnam during the film's opening credits, one can almost imagine Oliver Stone similarly hacking his way through the barrage of Hollywood's previous invocations of the troubled war, vainly searching for something that approximates the reality of the average infantry soldier's experience.

Platoon was released in 1986, back when American filmgoers were naming their dogs and offspring after the brawny hero of Rambo: First Blood Part II, intoxicated by that film's dizzying bubblegum action, while concurrently beset by endless Chuck Norris Missing in Action sequels on cable television. For viewers after a more serious contemplation of the controversial Southeast Asian conflict, classic dramas like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now were potent but hardly realistic, reinventing the war as allegory and metaphor.

Stone — who served in Vietnam — wanted to make a film that simply told it how it was, and Platoon was such a revelation in that respect that it became a sensation, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, that year trumping objectively superior films such as Hannah and Her Sisters and A Room With a View. Platoon was important, and it struck a nerve, rivatilzing the Hollywood war film and opening up a new, straightforward cinematic dialogue about Vietnam. It spawned no less than 11 new high-profile films about the war over the next three years, establishing Vietnam as Hollywood's guerre du jour — until World War II and its uncomplicated heroics returned to vogue in the late 1990s.

Platoon is more valuable considered when observed within this cultural context, rather than as the sometimes dull, sometimes overindulgent, occasionally powerful film that it is. Sheen stars and narrates as Chris Taylor, a privileged white kid (and Stone alter ego) who enlisted because he felt that the draft was unfairly targeting poor minorities. The film follows Taylor's tour of duty in a platoon led by the heavily scarred and vicious Lt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the stoic and principled Lt. Elias (Willem Dafoe). They stalk through jungles, encounter ambushes and firefights, infiltrate underground bunkers, commit atrocities and rescue civilians from further atrocities, witness great carnage, and basically lose their minds. This is pretty intense stuff, and Stone's approach is mostly sincere, but also labored by the director's heavy-handed attempts at playing it both straight and philsophical at the same time.

Sheen's narration is superflous, burdening indescribably stirring images with second-rate prose. These voiceovers also underline the key weakness of Stone's film: an uncharacteristic lack of confidence in his material. It's not unlike Stone to go over the top, but he usually knows when to hold back and let a powerful moment direct itself. The conceit that these unnecassary voiceovers are letters home to grandma shows a desperation to reveal too much. Maybe, just maybe, Chris Taylor's grandma is strong enough to grapple with sentiments like, "Hell is the impossibility of reason," but such threatens to turn an otherwise moving portrait of war into intellectual masturbation. "We did not fight the enemy. We fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us." Whatever.

Stone also double-dips his depictions of warring leaders Elias and Barnes. While Berenger gives an excellent, menacing, and complex performance, his director consistently overloads him with one purple line too many:

"You all know about killing? Well, I'd like to hear about it, potheads. You smoke this shit so to escape from reality? Me, I don't need this shit. I am reality."

This sort of dialogue strips away Barnes' threatening physicality and ultimately weakens the film's strongest character. Even the supporting grunts spit out colorful thoughts like, "Out there's the beast, and he hungry tonight!" Dafoe's last scene is the film's most memorable, mostly because it's the only important moment where Stone's inconsistently poetic approach feels appropriate.

In the grand pantheon of Vietnam films, Platoon is far from the best but still outshines those that followed it. Even in Stone's own canon it is a lesser work, but it's the one that put him on the map and made his later, more confident and exciting work possible.

Just as many of the film's characters go home in body bags, so did the careers of a surprising number of the promising young actors filling out the company's uniforms. The only actor to really maintain a respectable career of high quality work post-Platoon is Willem Dafoe. The rest of the appealing supporting cast has been relegated to B-movies, obscurity, and self-destruction, which is good news when it comes to the insufferable talents of mush-faced Forrest Whitaker and talentless Stone-favorite John C. McGinley. But one can't help but wonder why Berenger's career was sadly diverted toward sad hack-pieces like Diplomatic Seige and Cutaway.

*          *          *

MGM's second release of Platoon on DVD combines the newish anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from their bare-bones 2000 edition, along with the same 5.1 Dolby Digital remix. Also here are the supplemental materials from Artisan's out-of-print 1997 release — Stone provides one low-key, barely provocative commentary, while on another audio track "military technical advisor" Dale Dye gives a more energetic but equally uninformative recount. Much better is the documentary Tour of the Inferno: Revisiting Platoon, an excellent behind-the-scenes account of the film's production, originally on the Artisan disc and now back in circulation.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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