(Check out the list so far)
The Movie: Platoon (1986)
One Sentence Plot Summary: Chris Taylor is a young naïve volunteer soldier trying to find himself and gets caught in the conflict of war and two sergeants who have differing viewpoints on the war.
Why It’s on the List: One of the biggest clichés that so many films try to get across is the idea that “War is hell.” Some directors have achieved various levels of success with trying to tell their individual story. It feels like there have been so many of these kinds of movies. In this case, a lot of our focus is on Charlie Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen. It’s weird to think he’s just a sitcom guy or the guy who said “#winning” a lot for a hot minute there, but he was s a legitimate movie star for the last half of the 1980s and first part of the 1990s.
There are some really excellent aspects to this film involving the cast. You can blink and miss a lot of famous people. You get to see early Forest Whitaker and Keith David. Johnny Depp is also there but to hell with him. Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe play sergeants who are a little bit higher on the totem pole and have very different philosophies on life and humanity. Dafoe is much more compassionate as he seemingly prevents the genocide of a village, which is one of the most harrowing scenes of the film.
What makes this movie really sing is the fact that there isn’t a lot of plot or exposition. There are a lot of character moments. They ponder the essence of what it means to really fight in this war and lose humanity along the way. Soldiers don’t even want to know the names of new people because of the possibility of death. It’s a disgusting and disheartening examination of the human condition. I think about movies like 1917 and Dunkirk, incredible technical achievements that are ultimately empty vessels that have nothing to say about war. Those movies were great theatrical experiences, but I can’t see myself going back in 10 years and rewatching them.
Platoon is not exactly a pleasant rewatch. It addresses issues of class and fighting but isn’t as much of a deep dive as I would have wanted. Oliver Stone at least tries to pay attention to these issues. He is a director who genuinely seems interested in politics and has gotten a bit lost in recent years. To not have a film on this list would be ignoring a huge filmography. This won Best Picture in 1987 and Best Director for Stone. This is one of the rare cases where they probably got it right. Stone is a hell of a director, and he had a great run that should be better appreciated.
*Is war itself not problematic? Even moreso than the next war movie on the list, Stone portrays this war in a (justifiably) negative light.
*Stone does not endorse what happens to the Vietnamese people, but none of the villagers or soldiers are even named. Thus, an important aspect of this film totally lacks in agency. I would be so curious to see a Vietnam War movie from the perspective of the perceived enemy.
MVP: Oliver Stone is often maligned for his political views and his conspiracies. JFK seems to have an outsized influence on his filmography. There are times when he can be extra and not so subtle with his story beats, but I also believe directors committed to the act will find some success. He manages to tackle issues of class and explore the lack of humanity involved with war. He creates a brutal two hours, simultaneously beautiful and ugly in the way it looks. There is lip service paid to certain issues, and I only wish the kind of people who are fighting in wars would be discussed a lot more. Even a story focusing on Black soldiers didn’t really come to the forefront until Da 5 Bloods.
Best Performance: Charlie Sheen is as problematic an individual as you will see in one of these movies. Johnny Deep (who has what amounts to a cameo) is rapidly trying to approach him. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see Oliver Stone saw in Sheen. There’s also some nice symmetry as he is the son of the star of another very important Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now. He’s really the only major character of any substance with any sort of arc. Starting out as a naïve soldier, he becomes so hardened that he can kill a superior in the field. The narration is clunky at times, but I think it does a solid job creating somewhat of an emotional core that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Sheen, as he does throughout his career, can really straddle the pretty rich boy versus the bad boy persona he cultivated off-screen.
Best Quote: I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And 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 the 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. – Chris Taylor
Is there a sequel? No, but there have been so many of this kind of movie made at this point that they might as well be sequels. In the same year this came out, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was released.