“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“We been kicking other peoples asses for so long, I figured it’s time we got ours kicked.”
Platoon is a movie I saw way too young. I was five or six when it was released, and I’d say I watched it before I was 10. I say I was too young, not because of the violence or language in the movie, but because I just never would have got the message of the movie at that age. I kind of remember being a little underwhelmed by Platoon and not understanding why it was such a famous movie at the time. In the years since, I’ve probably seen it two or three more times, always with five to 10 years in between. And every time, as I get older, I appreciate Platoon a little bit more.
Chris (Charlie Sheen) is a fresh faced, middle class college boy just arrived to fight the war in Vietnam. In voiceover, we hear letters written to his grandmother, letters that give the viewer the lowdown on what it means to be a new recruit. To be new means to have not yet proven your worth. There’s no immediate comradery or bond between these men. Chris has to prove himself on the battle field. Something that takes that little bit longer after a botched ambush that everyone blames on Chris for supposedly falling asleep on watch.
Lt. Wolfe (Mark Moses) is officially in command, but like most officers in movies like this, he’s a candy ass figure head who has zero respect from his men. Instead, the real leaders are the higher ranking enlisted grunts. In this case, personified by Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), a ruthless hard ass who will sacrifice anyone or anything to win each skirmish they come across. There’s also Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), who is no less effective than Barnes in battle, but brings are more enlightened (ie. drug fuelled) approach to leading his men. Chris gets to oscillate between these too influences, taking on traits of both at different times.
Charlie Sheen does a good job as Charlie. And between this and his team up with Oliver Stone only a couple of years later in Wall Street, it’s weird to remember that there was a time when Charlie Sheen had the potential to be a serious and respected actor. Like I said, he does a good job in Platoon, but there’s a reason why Berenger and Dafoe got the Oscar nominations.
Chris is a passive character, there as the audience surrogate so we can learn about this world as he does. Whereas Sgt. Barens and Sgt. Elias have so much more dimension to them. Neither is all good, or all bad. Obviously, we’re supposed to like Elias more, but there’s enough grey from him to get things wrong and for Barnes to get things right.
I’d say that Platoon and Apocalypse Now are the two quintessential Vietnam movies, and I see them as kind of a pair. Not just because of the Sheen family connection, but because of their diverse approaches to the horror of war. With Apocalypse Now, Coppola dug deep into the disintegrating minds of his characters. Whereas with Platoon, Stone gives us the unrelenting horror that these men went through, and lets the mental toll be assumed.
Best Original Screenplay (Stone nominated, lost to Woody Allen for Hannah and Her Sisters)
Best Supporting Actor (Dafoe and Berenger nominated, lost to Michael Caine for Hannah and Her Sisters)