“I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us.”
I hadn’t seen “Platoon” (1986) since its release. Oliver Stone’s pulverizing take on our war in Vietnam which went on to win the Oscar for best picture and become one of the definitive films on the subject had always remained vividly on my mind.
In 2019 (which feels like a lifetime ago for the toll that the pandemic has taken on our sense of time and space) I went to Vietnam because I felt it was a duty at some point in my lifetime to visit this country. Having been born in 1963, the escalation and our involvement was part of my developing years. Later – since cinema consumes and dictates how I see the world – my consciousness was deeply affected by Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” (1978), Ashby’s “Coming Home” (1978), Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979), Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), and Stone’s trilogy on the subject – including “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989) and “Heaven & Earth” (1993). It was definitely a trip I will never forget. It’s a stunningly beautiful place, but its people are what would leave the most indelible mark. They refer to it as the American War.
One of the days there, I took a river trip up the Mekong, biked around rice paddies and stopped to have lunch at a farm. Our host was an elderly man who’d fought in the war. Small in stature, he kept looking at my partner who is a brawny six feet four blue-eyed blond. “Big American,” he said. “Do you resent us?” I blurted out. He sipped on his tea, stared for a second at the fields and replied, “No, we won.”
“Platoon” hasn’t lost any of its power. It’s a blunt object, but very effective. Young Chris is thrusted unto the war without much introduction – and from his point of view, camera at ground level – we experience concurrently the chaos – disorientation – and total sense of absurdity he perceives. Stone doesn’t paint a pretty picture. There’s no sense of exhilaration like we feel in other epic movies – just total immersion and confusion. “I think I made a big mistake coming here” states Chris.
There’s one aspect to the film that played differently this time around – more at the forefront – obviously tinted with the heightened sense of discord in our democracy. Upon his arrival, Chris is assigned to the 25th Infantry Division which is led by an inexpert Lieutenant Wolfe. They’re sent near the border with Cambodia. The de facto leaders are two sergeants that are diametrically opposed in every way. We have Barnes who is tough and distrustful. The soldiers that hang out with him listen to Merle Haggard and drink hooch. In his vision, we have to annihilate the enemy at whatever cost. Barnes’ face is hardened – covered with scars. “Shut up and take the pain. Take the pain,” he demands from his troops. On the other hand, Sergeant Elias is empathetic. In his tent, they listen to “White Rabbit” and smoke pot to transcend away from this nightmare. He’s more principled about procedures. It is the portrayal of their conflict – between these two extremes – that seems more poignant and vital than ever. “I love this place at night, the stars. There’s no right or wrong in them. They’re just there,” Elias expresses.
Stone – who wrote the script and based it on his own experiences – does create the atmosphere and the urgency of a retention – of the act of memorializing the way things actually were. In the most remarkable passage, the soldiers descend unto a village that may be sheltering the enemy. The camera stays close to the faces of the Americans as they battle a sense of rage and paranoia within themselves. A foreign language is being screamed at them. They’re exhausted. It’s a precarious situation in which some could do the irrational and others try to retain some sense of correctness. It’s the precipice of darkness.
The acting is phenomenal. This is the best thing Charlie Sheen has ever done. He’s terrific in this – and I love that his performance recalls and can stand side by side with his dad’s in “Apocalypse Now.” Cast against type, Willem Dafoe broke away from being cast as the villain, in a fantastically sympathetic portrayal.
Chris: “We walk through the jungle like ghosts through the landscape”
Available to stream on Netflix, DIRECTV, Sling, EPIX NOW, and EPIX (via Amazon Prime, Hulu and Philo) and to rent on Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV, FandangoNOW, Redbox and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Written by Oliver Stone
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, Reggie Johnson, Mark Moses, Corey Glover, Johnny Depp, Chris Pedersen, Bob Orwig, David Neidorf, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe and Charlie Sheen
Writer and Director Oliver Stone on Casting “Platoon”
“It was written in ’76 and was almost made then by Sidney Lumet and Pacino. Then there was a period in ’84 when Michael Cimino was going to produce it and Emilio Estevez was going to play the role, actually. Costner passed on it, I believe, because his brother had been in Vietnam…I liked Willem because I’d seen him as a bad guy in ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ and I liked the idea of him being a more positive character…Charlie was a dumb-struck 17-year-old the first time he came in for the film, back when we were going to make it in ’84. And in those two years, he’d grown and seemed perfectly wide-eyed and had a vaguely privileged look…I think he did a great job. He was perfect for the movie. He conveys the horror of the place.” (ew.com)
Writer/Director Oliver Stone on Bringing “Platoon” to the Screen
“It was very low-budget. And for me to finally get there after two close calls in making it in ’76 and ’84, was a real highlight…The ’76 version was just not considered upbeat enough. It was too realistic, which is why Sidney Lumet liked it. So who knows? And then I wrote ‘Midnight Express,’ which was my big breakthrough in Hollywood. And at that point, ‘Platoon’ was stashed away in a closet because no one wanted to make a realistic movie. And then you had films like ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘The Deer Hunter.’ And the feeling was our moment had passed. So I was sad about it — really heartbroken. I forgot about the script for a while, thinking it would never get made. And then Michael Cimino [who also directed ‘The Deer Hunter’] said I should bring ‘Platoon’ back and he would produce it. This was in ’84. And I thought it was going to happen, but Dino DeLaurentiis f—ed us over, big time…He was only willing to go so far. The script was mine and he hadn’t paid for it, really. He considered it his, but he hadn’t paid. We had to threaten to go to court to get the movie back. It’s a miracle it eventually got made. It’s also a miracle that it was received well because it was supposed to be past due. We’d had ‘Rambo’ and a bunch of other Vietnam movies. And the thinking was no one wanted another Vietnam movie.” (ew.com)
About Cinematographer Robert Richardson
Prior to becoming a regular collaborator with such prominent directors as Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, cinematographer Robert Richardson served his apprenticeship shooting second unit on “Repo Man” (1984) while filming television documentaries for PBS and the BBC. His television work led Stone to hire him to shoot “Salvador” (1986) and “Platoon” (1986), both of which required a cinema verite style that only a documentary cinematographer could offer. From there, he worked almost exclusively for Stone, filming “Wall Street” (1987), “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989) and “The Doors” (1991), while occasionally branching out to shoot films like John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out” (1988) and “City of Hope” (1991). But it was his stunning work using a multitude of stock and cameras to create a documentary feel for “JFK” (1991), which earned the cinematographer his first Academy Award. While he sharpened the hyperkinetic style of JFK in “Natural Born Killers” (1994), “Nixon” (1995) and “U-Turn” (1997), Richardson was in-demand by other top Hollywood directors like Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, both of whom tapped the director of photography for films like “Bringing Out the Dead” (1999), “Kill Bill, Vol. 1” (2003) and “Kill Bill, Vol. 2” (2004). Richardson earned Oscars two and three for his work with Scorsese on “The Aviator” (2004) and “Hugo” (2011). As he continued to earn acclaim for projects like Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (2012), “The Hateful Eight” (2015) and “Live By Night” (2016) for Director Ben Affleck there is no doubt that Richardson is one of the finest cinematographers working in Hollywood. (robertrichardson.com)
About Writer and Director Oliver Stone
Stone, the son of a wealthy stockbroker, was raised in New York City. He briefly studied at Yale University before dropping out to teach English in South Vietnam. Upon his return, Stone lived in Mexico for a year and again attended Yale for a short period. In 1967, during the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He distinguished himself in combat, earning two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. Stone then enrolled in film school at New York University (B.A., 1971), studying under director Martin Scorsese. Stone was deeply affected by his war experiences, and his student films, such as “Last Year in Viet Nam” (1971), dealt directly with the consequences of the Vietnam conflict. After graduating, he directed the horror movies “Seizure!” (1974) and “The Hand” (1981), the latter of which starred Michael Caine. Stone also began experimenting with screenwriting, and he won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for “Midnight Express” (1978), which was based on the true story of a man brutally abused while imprisoned for drug smuggling in Turkey. Stone devoted much of the early 1980s to writing screenplays, including “Conan the Barbarian” (1982), “Scarface” (1983), which was directed by Brian De Palma and starred Al Pacino, and “Year of the Dragon” (1985). He returned to directing with “Salvador” (1986), which he also wrote. In the film, a journalist (played by James Woods) documents the atrocities committed during the El Salvador uprisings of 1980–81. Stone again drew on the trauma of the Vietnam War in “Platoon” (1986), for which he won another Academy Award, this time for directing. The film navigates the perils of war from the perspective of a new recruit who quickly realizes that the idealism that motivated his decision to enlist was misguided. Stone drew upon personal experience once more for “Wall Street” (1987), using memories of his father’s career as a stockbroker to conjure an indictment of the greed and deceit governing the financial world. In 1988 he adapted Eric Bogosian’s Off-Broadway play “Talk Radio” to film.
Stone emphasized the continuing ramifications of the Vietnam War with “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989). The film, based on the autobiography of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, chronicles the evolution of a young man, played by Tom Cruise, from patriotic soldier to paraplegic anti-war activist. Stone won an Academy Award for directing that movie and received a fourth career nomination for his writing. The year 1991 saw the release of both “JFK,” a polarizing investigation of the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy, and “The Doors,” a stylish account of the rise and fall of the titular American rock band. In “Heaven & Earth” (1993), Stone approached the Vietnam War and its aftermath from the perspective of a young Vietnamese woman. Stone again courted controversy with “Natural Born Killers” (1994), a film, written by Quentin Tarantino, about the savagely violent exploits of a married couple, played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis…Stone then cast Anthony Hopkins in the title role of “Nixon” (1995), a measured take on the life of the U.S. president. He also developed the screenplay for “Evita” (1996), an adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about Argentine politician Eva Perón (played by Madonna). Stone revisited some of his favoured motifs, power and violence, in “Any Given Sunday” (1999), about professional football, and in “Alexander” (2004), a…biography of Alexander the Great. “World Trade Center” (2006), a retelling of the events of September 11, 2001, from the viewpoint of two police officers, returned Stone to the centre of public debate… “W.” (2008), his biopic of Pres. George W. Bush, drew ire from both extremes of the political spectrum for its refusal to pass definitive judgment, positive or negative, on its subject.
Stone later directed “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010), a sequel to the 1987 film that was set amid the global financial crisis of 2008, and “Savages” (2012), an ensemble thriller about marijuana trafficking that, in its depiction of seedy mayhem, was reminiscent of his earlier “U Turn” (1997). “Snowden” (2016) centres on the real-life American intelligence officer who exposed the NSA’s secret surveillance programs by leaking classified documents. In addition to directing and writing, Stone produced many of his own movies. Besides narrative films, he made documentaries about Latin American politics: “Comandante” (2003), about Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and “South of the Border” (2009), which focused on several other left-wing leaders, notably Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chávez. He revisited both leaders in the documentaries “Castro in Winter” (2012) and “Mi amigo Hugo” (2014; “My Friend Hugo”). With Peter Kuznick, he also created Oliver Stone’s “Untold History of the United States” (2012), a 10-part television documentary (and accompanying book) that took an unorthodox look at the preceding century of American political history. The four-part TV series “The Putin Interviews” (2017) featured conversations between Stone and the Russian president. Stone’s books included a semi-autobiographical novel, “A Child’s Night Dream” (1997), and the memoir “Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game” (2020). (britannica.com)