Oliver Stone’s Platoon provides a glimpse into the shock and horror of war. The 1986 film follows a young, innocent recruit’s journey to become a disillusioned, hardened, and dazed soldier. Platoon’s hard-hitting story and performances by its actors will leave an ineffaceable mark on viewers.
The movie’s story follows Chris Taylor, a young recruit who willingly waived his college education so he could fight in Vietnam. Taylor desires to be anonymous, and the military offers just that and allows him to start afresh. However, when he arrives, he quickly realizes that war is not glorious. When a power struggle erupts between two non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in his platoon, the lines between ally and enemy are quickly blurred.
Platoon does not waste any time in its introduction. The film drops viewers directly onto the landing pad as Taylor of Bravo Company arrives in theater. One of the first sights Taylor witnesses are body bags being unloaded and a group of dazed looking men who are just returning from the jungle. The film then guides viewers as they witness the bright-eyed Taylor become like the very men he saw upon his arrival. As such, the story comes full circle and it does so without dropping any beats. This is not to say that the film is non-stop wartime action, there are plenty of combat sequences, but a key focus of the movie are psychological aspects of war.
In addition to “traditional war elements,” the film also depicts how a theater of operations can quickly spiral into a cesspool of war crimes. This is communicated in a very strong and haunting manner. Taylor narrates segments throughout the movie as he pens a letter to his grandmother. This device at once communicates Taylor’s inner struggle as developments unfold, helps viewers understand the context and situation. It also appropriately progresses the narrative.
Platoon’s tone consists of illuminating the horrors of war and the psychological components that often accompany combat. The film’s opening “fade-in” text is a quote from Ecclesiastes. It states, “Rejoice O young man in thy youth.” Taylor later admits, “We did not fight the enemy. We fought ourselves and the enemy was in us.” These two quotes succinctly set the somber ambiance of the film. As mentioned above, the brutality and shock of armed conflict creates a poignant, troubling, and emotionally heavy experience.
The performances throughout Platoon are great. Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, and Willem Dafoe provide the principal roles. The film reveals the journey of Sheen’s Chris Taylor from new “tender footed” soldier to hardened combat veteran. The way in which Sheen depicts Taylor’s horrors and character growth is superb.
The struggle between two of the platoon’s sergeants, Barnes and Elias, portrayed by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, respectively, is another central aspect of the film. Their power struggle sets the stage for war crimes and aberrant behavior to be displayed. In reality, Sgt. Barnes is really the film’s antagonist, as he and his acolytes engage in criminal behavior, particularly in one sequence that functions as Platoon’s representation of the actual My Lai Massacre of 1968. Although Barnes is despicable, Berenger’s acting is incredible as he fully assumes this notorious role.
Barnes’ malevolence is counterbalanced by Defoe’s Sgt. Elias, a well-liked NCO who strives to maintain his dignity and that of his men. It is great to see Elias interact with his fellow soldiers in the platoon and Defoe’s dialogue delivery and reactionary acting are powerful, indeed. Other supporting roles from Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, and Reggie Johnson, to name a few, show the diverse amalgam of individuals in within platoon.
Robert Richardson’s cinematography is great. His shots and compositions powerfully capture the reactions of the film’s characters to their war experiences. An iconic sequence depicting betrayal and isolation in the film’s third act is particularly striking. The filters used in the sequence when Taylor first arrives are a nice touch in communicating the haze of the battle from which the men and body bags returned. Everything considered, Richardson’s shots nicely blend with the film’s horrifying and emotional story and tone.
The film’s production design, from the set pieces around the base and its living to the design of the Vietnamese villages to the use of pyrotechnics are first-rate. Although it has strong emotional and psychological elements, Platoon is still very much a war film and its convincing production and sound design are a constant reminder of that fact.
Oliver Stone’s writing and direction of Platoon are noteworthy. The gripping-though-distressing story is communicated in a clear and concise manner. Overall the film is set in a clear cinéma-vérité style that is used to phenomenal effect. The character balance between Barns and Elias is handled well and the moral grey zone in which Taylor and the other soldiers often find themselves is intense and disturbing.
Moreover, Platoon won the following Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing. It received the following Academy Award nominations: Best Actor in a Supporting Role for both Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, and Best Cinematography. It is clear through its award achievements and nominations that Platoon is a well-rounded film filled with great acting, production, and direction, as well as notable technical elements.
In the end, Platoon is a very emotionally onerous film. It is definitely not for the faint of heart and is not an enjoyable or entertaining experience. Rather, it is a sobering film that is not afraid to show the horrific side of war. Many films convey war as a glorious, but Platoon handily carves out its own rightful place among the handful of war films that seek more realistic depictions of warfare.
Distributor: Orion Pictures
Production: Hemdale; Cinema 86
Director: Oliver Stone
Producer: Arnold Kopelson
Screenwriter: Oliver Stone
Director of Photography: Robert Richardson
Editor: Claire Simpson
Art Direction: Rodell Cruz; Doris Sherman Williams
Music: Georges Delerue
Costumier: Kathryn Morrison
Budget: ca. $6,000,000
Release Date: December 19, 1986; February 6, 1987 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Laboratory: Consolidated Film Industries; National Media Productions
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Copyright Holder: Hemdale Film Corporation
Cast: Charlie Sheen; Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe; Keith David; Forest Whitaker; Francesco Quinn; Kevin Dillon; John C. McGinley; Reggie Johnson; Johnny Depp; Mark Moses; Dale Dye
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Running Time: 2 hours (120 mins.)
 Platoon. Directed by Oliver Stone. 1986. Los Angeles, CA: Orion Pictures. MGM Home Entertainment Inc. 2001. DVD.