Oliver Stone’s Platoon out on Blu-ray next week

May 19, 2011

In today’s mail there was a Blu-ray of Oliver Stone’s Platoon — the 25th anniversary edition, the first time the film has been released on DVD. Pardon me if I feel a little old.

Platoon wasn’t quite the first movie I wrote about professionally, but it was the first time I’d ever seen a film in advance of its theatrical opening. It doesn’t seem like it was 25 years ago.

I was sent to the screening in my capacity as a metro columnist, and my assignment was to interview several Vietnam veterans for whom the screening had been arranged.

That screening was, if not an epiphany, at least a watershed event in my life, for I was not prepared for the effect Stone’s work would have on those men, most of whom must have been younger than I am now. I went to see a movie and saw a room of combat veterans reduced to blubbering. When I tried to talk to some of them, they were unable to articulate the complicated feelings watching the film engendered.

I got some quotes, a half dozen vets repeating some version of the same thing: “That’s how it was.” Or that was almost how it was.

That so many of these men expressed this same sentiment still seems amazing to me — I had assumed any cinematic treatment of war would seem inauthentic to men who’d been in country, that they would laugh at or be angered by the idea of actors playing at the horror they’d lived through. Knowing they were affected deeply by this film — which, in my amateur way I’d adjudged as excellent if elegiac and poetry-stuffed — deepened my respect for Stone and changed the way I looked at the movies.

Until Platoon, I thought movies were entertainments, and that because of the collaborative nature of the form, they would always be less thoughtful and subtle, less transcendent, than the best work produced by a novelist or a painter. A movie was like a novel written by committee, a brokered deal circumscribed by compromise. I liked them, but I thought I understood their limitations.

In retrospect I could say that I’d recognized the possibilities earlier, that Taxi Driver or Apocalypse Now or A Clockwork Orange had opened my eyes to the potential of the form, but the truth is it took this gritty war drama, with Charlie Sheen and Kevin Dillon (and Johnny Depp in a small role) to make me recognize how powerful the movies could be.

Platoon is famously based on Stone’s own experiences in Vietnam and, as the veterans I watched the film with would attest, it rings with authenticity. While Stone set up a dichotomy between two platoon sergeants, saintly Elias (Willem Dafoe) and murderous Barnes (Tom Berenger), both characters remain recognizably human. It was a stroke of genius to cast them against the type they had heretofore played. Dafoe was an established villain, and his cinematic resume lent some ballast to his portrayal — it was not hard to imagine that Elias had battled back some demons of his own.

And Berenger, best known as the lightweight sub-Selleck TV actor in The Big Chill, played Barnes less as a monster than as a ruined, disillusioned man clinging to his belief in himself as one of the good guys. Barnes is disgusted by Elias and his dope-smoking followers; he believes, or at least wants to believe, in the rightness of his cause. We understand how a young soldier might be caught between these two poles: Elias wants his guys to make it through the madness and come out the other side. Barnes finds meaning in his role as a warrior, a soldier sent to do a job whether he understands it or not.

Fresh recruit Chris Taylor (Sheen) serves as surrogate for Stone and the audience; we watch as he’s tossed into the surreal world of war. As he steps off the plane with the other new recruits, the first sight they encounter is body bags being sent home. Then the new meat is taunted by a group of soldiers who’ve served their hitches. The implication is that these replacements are staring at their own future — some will go home bitter and snarling, others will be zipped into bags.

While Platoon wasn’t the first movie about Vietnam, it was a demythologizing tonic that, in an odd way, also seemed like a gesture of reconciliation. Some vets didn’t like it (I suspect most of them never saw it) because it proliferated an image of the American fighting man as scared and vulnerable, given to self-medication as well as self-doubt. I remember wishing my father had been alive to see it, and that we could have talked about his experiences in Southeast Asia in light of what the movie had revealed.

It wasn’t long after that screening that I started writing about movies regularly; by the end of the 1980s I considered myself a real, live critic. A few years later, I would sit down with Stone and interview him — I found him paranoid and unhelpful, a lot closer to the caricature of the raving conspiracy nut his enemies paint him as than the subtle artist who I imagined wrote and directed Platoon.

i didn’t see Stone again until more than a decade after that unsatisfactory first meeting. To my amazement, he remembered me — and he was extraordinarily warm and cordial. He recalled details of our previous conversation but he didn’t allude to the tenor of it. I ended up liking him quite a lot.

Which is good, considering what I owe him.

1 Comment

  • Comment by DLindsay — May 20,2011 at 9:04 am

    When this movie came out, one of my supervisors and one co-worker had been in Vietnam. The three of us saw the movie within a few days of each other. The co-worker wouldn’t talk about the film, ever, although he began, a few days later, telling me funny anecdotes about his time in country (he’d never really talked about the war at all except to say he’d been over there). But he would never talk about the movie. The supervisor would say, in answer to my question “Yeah, they got it right.” Not a big Stone fan overall, but it is an extraordinary movie.

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