Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
I have always admired the films of Oliver Stone, even if I have not particularly liked them. Usually, I prefer a certain ambiguity in the stories I watch–room for interpretation, the ability for different viewers to reach different conclusions about what the filmmaker intends… without the director going to absurd ends, of course.
Oliver Stone is a horse of a different color from the usual, as most directors also prefer at least a pretense of ambiguity. In Stone’s films, however, you are rarely in doubt of where he stands, or where he wants you standing when you’re done. In a medium where everything is one form of controlled deception or another, that’s pretty refreshing.
Platoon typifies Stone’s characteristic in-your-face approach to filmmaking, yet it is also perhaps his most ambiguous film. This is probably because it is his most personal.
Loosely autobiographical, the film tells the story of one volunteer grunt’s tour of duty with the US Infantry in Viet Nam. Thrown in with a cadre of draftees and a handful of honest-to-God gung-ho take-no-prisoners bad-ass vets, Stone’s stand-in–played incredibly well in his first starring role by Charlie Sheen–learns the ropes, barely survives the experience, and gets his worldview repeatedly deflowered in a most disheartening way.
The story is described, within the screenplay itself, as a war over Chris’s soul. This battle is being waged via the persons of Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger, as he had never been seen prior and as he has never since been seen) and Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe, in a career-defining role). These two NCOs represent the better and worse angels of our wartime natures, if you will, and Chris Taylor, who enters the fray rudderless, guts pulled this way and that as Barnes and Elias try to wrest control of the unit from its ineffective Academy-trained Lieutenant.
Of the various Viet Nam-era films that have been made, Platoon is generally held in highest regards by veterans for its foul-mouthed, disillusioned realism. And yet the film is incredibly mythic in its aims and execution, too, and from this operatic archness it derives a taut and unforgettable story arc. All other controversies aside–the obvious racism of the war-era draft policies, the wartime atrocities committed by Chris’s platoon, the rampant abuse of drugs and alcohol–the crux of the story portrays one of the war’s other dirty secrets: “fragging,” or the deliberate execution of officers by friendly fire.
If Chris feels like he’s been dragged through hell by the time he’s choppered out following the final firefight, viewers feel no less so.
And yet… hammered over the head as we have been Stone, there is so much complexity and ambiguity to the way Berenger’s and Dafoe’s scenes are filmed that you could spend all night talking with your friends about what really happened during that tour of duty. Having lived the story, Stone clearly knows that, as much he might like to be able to see the world through black-and-white lenses, there’s an awful lot of nuance to human experience.