Registering the Registry 2019: Platoon (1986)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, Oliver Stone realizes his fifteen-years-in-gestation take on the Vietnam War to massive critical and commercial acclaim in Platoon. We will see firsthand just how he handles it.

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Can a war movie make war look unappealing? If you’ve read the slightest bit of historical film criticism, you of course know the answer is a firm no, at least per François Truffaut. The fickle thing about war in cinema is no matter how much you emphasize its nature as a pointless, soul-rending meat grinder only practiced as a means of advancing imperial interests or controlling the population, your tactics play right into the naïve and practiced militaristic minds alike. An irresponsible, jingoistic war movie is useful because it glamorizes the bloodshed and ignores all ethical issues in favor of pumping the armed forces as the ultimate badasses; a cynical, honest war movie is useful because it presents the be-all end-all of challenges. Your impressionable youth looks on the Apocalypse Nows of the world, the Saving Private Ryans, the Dunkirks, and they understand the battlefield as this hellish place where nothing good happens, nothing meaningful is accomplished, nobody comes back home with their innocence intact. They just also see it as a proving ground, a place where one can unmake an imperfect self and forge it into something better, something stronger, something they want to see. A vision of hell on earth is appealing to those who want to walk through hell, for if you are inclined to such a mindset, nothing will teach the true cost of giving so much to the fight except living with it for decades after the fight is through.

In Platoon, Oliver Stone’s second picture of 1986 after Salvador, and the far more successful of the two, I think the director understands the paradox of making celluloid war as a means of speaking against the flesh and bullets real thing. He himself was a young man who looked on the Vietnam War as a proving grounds, a chance to intangibly give something back to his country, dropping out of college to serve as a member of the 25th Infantry and 1st Calvary to two wounds and about as much accomplishment as any soldier during ‘Nam. Lotta life and death experience, lotta decoration, scant little right done by anyone. The man sat on some form of the script for Platoon across fifteen years, gradually refining it as he gained experience as a screenwriter and eventually director, struggling to find investors for the project all the while -first because nobody believed in the prospect of funding a serious-minded Vietnam picture, then because Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter already said all there was to be said on the war, so why make another movie? False starts under Michael Cimino and Dino de Laurentiis eventually gave way to a dual-production with Salvador under John Daly and Arnold Kopelson, with a special thirty-day blitz of basic training and intensive military instruction under ex-Marine Dale Dye. All to say Oliver Stone had eyes which saw the conflict firsthand, and ample time to consider war films in general and Vietnam films in specific before diving into work on his dream project. If anyone were to understand the potential pitfalls inherent to the genre, it’d be him. But beyond these background details, what about the film itself, exactly, best illustrates his groking of the issue?

We can talk about how Platoon functions on a basic filmmaking level, in its dedication to making the battlefield an utterly torturous place. How Stone, cinematographer Robert Richardson, and editor Claire Simpson capture firefights on the Cambodian border as exercises in insensibility, the jungle already a difficult-to-parse press of trees and hills and crowding air before an eruption of gunfire sends everyone scattering to the four corners, any pretense to readable screen geography shattered on first contact. They make every firefight a mess beyond messes, wherein the bullets fly from wherever they please, the enemy are little more than figures in the distance, and every shot could very well be aimed against a fellow soldier or Vietcong combatant with equal likelihood. A good half of the casualties in Platoon are either the result of friendly fire, or so deep in the thick of it you couldn’t tell if friend or foe cut down a familiar face if you tried. Hell, a major second act battle revolves entirely about a high-ranking character miscommunicating coordinates and calling down an RPG strike on his own people. When sensibility and coherence does enter into the fights, it’s strictly a one-on-one basis: the certainty a friend is sucking their last gasps by your side, or else you’re charging a nameless combatant intent on snuffing out the lights in his eyes, or else taking stock in the aftermath to find the only recognizable landmarks are now dotted corpses across the scene, if not entire mounds of bodies. It’s war as an aimless, frightening engagement, but because it plays into the fantasy of the rewarding meatgrinder, it does not truly speak to Stone’s understanding of the paradox, however fine it is as an act of moviemaking.

We can talk about Platoon’s approach to downtime, the moments when you’re with your fellow soldiers and can find some reprieve from the madness. How Stone wasn’t interested in war’s ability to link men in a band of brothers, and instead emphasized through his script and training process the tendency for men to splinter into factions with divisions and hatreds more concrete than those directed towards the enemy. These are sometimes broken down to the pot-smokers and beerswillers in retrospectives, the good soldiers and the evil soldiers, yet I’d argue Stone makes these divisions more arbitrary than the surface level contrast between “White Rabbit” and “Okie From Muskogee” implies. After all, the men primarily aligned with heavily-scarred Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) are given towards a great deal of internal conflict over perceived weakness or cowardice, their alliance only held together by some notion of tribalism that decidedly weakens as soldiers come and go. Those who camp with relatively kind and easy-going Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe)-including protagonist Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen)- are just as prone to closing ranks and torturing an entire village as revenge for the death of a fellow soldier, almost evenly so despite Elias and Taylor’s objections to the most odious transgressions. They mock and terrorize and burn it all to the ground with candor and heavily-repressed resignation all the same. Outside a single sequence defining the camps in late act one, the sheer weight of hard work and the psychological demands of constant marching and camping and fighting so far away from home largely keeps the men to themselves, only a few one-on-one friendships fully defined, and the intra-platoon fighting purely an ideological trick to keep oneself sane. By the time we reach the deadly final shootout, all except the basest loyalties to one party or another have disintegrated, and it’s every man for himself.

Again, however, the surface level appearance of bonding plays into the deadset’s perception of war. No matter how boring, no matter how straining, no matter how even the chillest setting contains some tension with Dafoe pointing a shotgun in Sheen’s face, this angle too does not illustrate Stone’s understanding.

Perhaps, then, we can tunnel into the Oscar-nominated performances by Berenger and Dafoe, examine just how Sgts. Barnes and Elias are reshaped, and what it costs them. Barnes, the professed realist who’s bought into his own legend as a grizzled giant who can’t die until he deems the time fit, a man on the verge of total psychopathy who’s ready to respond with lit muzzles and overwhelming force to every problem before him. The soldier who responded to his lack of control over the war by building a small band of sycophants and boys bloodthirstier than him, who loves a good speech to scare the shit out of recruits thinking of breaking rank or perhaps taking his life in revenge for his transgressive actions. Elias, the man who’s been here too long, seen it all, has no prospective path out, and so has become a blissed mentor to those who just arrived. Someone given to smoking from the peace pipe, offering gentle assurance when needed, stepping through an active firefight as if it were an old home, yet not so far gone as to lose his touch or edge when righteous anger is necessary. Both men who evidently lost so much to the fight before cameraroll began, both presented through action and dialogue as paragons for their respective philosophies, capable of cooperation at the start yet entirely incompatible by the film’s middle. So incompatible that Barnes wounds Elias as revenge for Elias doing the right thing in reporting Barnes’ war crimes, leaving the old soldier to reach for the skies in terrible acceptance after a last mad dash for freedom. So incompatible that although Barnes escapes court marshal, he still dies like the dog he is in the mud when Taylor, driven to the brink of madness by Elias’ death, hunts him down in the final fight and puts three in Barnes’ chest at the wounded man’s order.

These are closer to what I mean when I say Stone understands the impossibility of making war look unappealing, though we must view them as necessary failures of the effort to get at Platoon’s real accomplishment on this front. Not failures in the sense of being badly written, badly acted, or badly presented, of course, for they are none of these, and indeed embody many of the film’s finest hours, including its singularly memorable image from Dafoe’s death. Failures, instead, of showing the true cost of throwing oneself to the jaws of war. True, becoming more figures then men places them in such diametric opposition as to cost both their lives, and true, neither makes it home to see a day not defined by steaming jungles filled with lead and death. There is, however, something ennobling about their deaths, something with appeals to the militaristic mind like nothing else. What greater glory is there than in eliminating the old self to such an extent there is nothing of it in evidence to a fresh eye, building yourself into a towering presence who can redefine another’s life just by existing, and then going down in a manner consistent with your new personality? That is the ultimate accomplishment for a foolhardy young soldier — you unmake what you don’t like about yourself, find something fresh on the battlefield, and then snuff it out before anything can compromise the new you. Better to have lived with blazing intensity for a little while and never suffered the dulling of life after than to never know such at all. Sainthood and demonization, they alike make a truer you, a better you, a you only found after years’ sustained fire. To be an Elias or Barnes and never make it back is the entire reason young men like Stone throw away their lives to become a grunt.

Hence, I’d argue we find the best proof Oliver Stone knows how to grapple with the war film’s inability to make war look unappealing in Charlie Sheen’s character and performance. The young man gets exactly what he wants in the film’s earliest moments, the crushing anonymity of a low-ranking soldier, alienation from all around him, the kind of life in which he’s worth less than spit and treated even worse. Everyone and everything is out to get him, and those willing to lend a helping hand or a friendly word of advice can only do so much when the unpredictability of it all keeps taking and taking and taking — chats with Keith David’s King can only do so much when they’re burning down a village hours later. Whatever you could find in his person before enlistment is gladly and swiftly squashed beneath the shit, rendering him the ideal template for reconstruction given enough time… and then he never gets such. Outside a few scenes in which you might charitably call Taylor an extension of Elias’ spirit, he remains a blank, a slip, a near-nobody who never finds who he’ll be to distinguish himself from every other broken American and Vietnamese soldier. He sees some horrible things as his commanders kill their own men, does some horrible things as he tortures handicapped soldiers in the heat of the moment, survives just as many wounds as his writer, serves as Barnes’ executioner, and that’s that. No fresh Chris Taylor emerges from the ashes, whatever his name might imply. No better Chris Taylor blossoms in the shell of the old. Chris Taylor’s reward is his survival, and the privilege to live with it.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call this brilliance or peak filmmaking like some others, owing largely to Stone’s decision to incorporate narration from Sheen throughout the film. Allowing myself a lone direct Apocalypse Now comparison, these spoken letters to his grandmother are not Martin Sheen’s hollow, near paranoid digressions, the thoughts of a man trapped in hell with no choice but to march deeper, further swallowed by the vortexes of the jungle and his mind with every step. They function as reminder and promise of a world outside the war, a sense of clarity not afforded in the moment, perspective beyond what Taylor should ever be capable of given his experiences. We are permitted too easy an escape from the harrowing experience whenever Sheen speaks, and in moralizing about his new life as the son of two warring fathers, the effect almost falls apart. Thankfully it doesn’t, for Sheen remains as fittingly flat and near-unreadable a figure as he should be despite the closing narration, but we come closer to breakage than I’d prefer. Perhaps I reveal the limitations of my own perspective here; I know a large part of Platoon’s initial prestige derived from the way it spoke to Vietnam veterans’ experiences in a way largely untouched by the bleaker themes of earlier films on the subject. Perhaps leaving the hope Taylor could pull himself together again in spite of the war destroying so much of his soul and leaving him with little more than two dead men as buoys through the narration was instrumental to such appeal. Regardless, I maintain the main body of the narration is distracting, and limits the film’s potential towards purely resonant experience of going in expecting a new you and coming out just broken.

Long as human nature remains the same, no war story can surmount the challenge. The bleakest, most hateful recollection of sitting in the trenches, contemplating suicide, knowing it was all for nothing will always carry the unspoken challenge, the temptation to think, “I could do better. And if I don’t, it’ll make me a real man all the same.” The very fact of contextualizing the experience as a relatable story into which others can slot themselves damn the endeavor, blows any chance of scaring the true believers straight to little bloody pieces. Nobody, not even Oliver Stone’s Platoon, can make an unappealing war movie. What can be done, and what I think Oliver Stone manages, is to accept the impossibility in the task, present the reality of the situation honestly as possible, and hope at least one impressionable young mind gets it. There’s no good lots to draw when you set your boots on the ground: you die a pointless death early on while your eyes are full of stars, you die a pointless death with hollowed eyes and nothing left, you die a pointless death as a new man who still couldn’t steer his course from that final fate, or get out alive and now have to deal. If you’re lucky, you can hide the pain behind a smile, mostly for others’ benefit. Anonymity, remembrance, the old you or the new, however you slice it something valuable is lost, and whatever you find in return will always feel an inadequate replacement. The tracks of your tears remain plainly visible, and you just know the next young fool will march in your place sometime soon, convinced he’ll find some measure of meaning this time.

It might not dissuade or avoid the appeal of speaking on war, but to borrow a phrase, it speaks to the steel-eyed death and men fighting to be born with as much honesty as you could ask. And when we talk about war, being honest and true is all one can ask.

(Afford me a blaspheme: “Adagio for Strings” is a lovely composition and pairs well with every scene it’s in. Stone probably uses it one too many times all told, tho.)

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War’s all in what you make of it, so I’d like to know what you make of it! Leave comments below, on Platoon, the review, your thoughts on stone, however you feel like taking the conversation. And be sure to keep an eye out for next week’s installment, when we finally leave the 80s to find Kevin Smith rewriting the popular conception of independent moviemaking with 1994’s Clerks! DirecTV and HBO Max will do you for streaming, while Amazon, Vudu, and Fandango should cover rentals and purchases. See y’all then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, and rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter.

I write on the National Film Registry.