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Our review of Platoon: 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition, published June 5th, 2006, is also available.
The first casualty in war is innocence.
Platoon caused quite a stir on its theatrical release. Some veterans protested that Vietnam wasn't like that at all, but Stone kept to his guns—maintaining that he was not trying to make a movie about the Vietnam War, but rather about how the Vietnam War affected him. The characters were composites of people he had known, as were the incidents. From the shadows came another set of voices—Vietnam veterans, the regular grunts—saying, yeah, it was pretty much like that. Think of all the accolades Steven Spielberg got for bringing the reality of World War II to the screen; that's what Stone did for Vietnam.
It was the right film at the right time; after tearing itself apart over the war, the nation was ready to move on, but one of the war's sad legacies was the manner in which Vietnam veterans were not welcomed as heroes, but instead vilified and marginalized. Platoon, in a very real sense, allowed the nation to acknowledge their service and give them their due. Twenty-five years after its initial release, Oliver Stone's landmark film returns as Platoon (Blu-ray), courtesy of MGM.
Facts of the Case
Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen, Wall Street), full of youthful idealism, dropped out of college and enlisted. Arriving in Vietnam green and borderline useless, he lands in Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. The company commander, Lt. Wolfe, is almost as green as Chris and relies (too) heavily on his sergeants, Elias (Willem Defoe, To Live and Die in L.A.) and Barnes (Tom Berenger, Major League). The two sergeants are studies in opposites; Elias is warm and compassionate, and goes on solo missions (taking the company's burdens on himself), while Barnes, callous and ruthless, insists that every man pull his weight, showing nothing but contempt to newbies who don't know any better. Unsurprisingly, the two butt heads on a regular basis. In short order, Chris, like the other members of his platoon, gets worn down by the stress and exhaustion. He finds acceptance with a group known as the "Heads," who relax by smoking weed and dancing to Motown.
Then one day during a patrol, one of the soldiers disappears; his mutilated body is soon discovered near a village. As the soldiers search the village and question the villagers, the tensions and frustrations spill over, and the soldiers begin to brutalize the villagers, leading to a single moment of violence that will split the platoon in half, and ultimately force Chris to decide what kind of man he wants to be.
If you're coming to Platoon for the first time, it's hard to fully appreciate what a milestone picture this is. Previous war movies tended to be fairly jingoistic exercises (best typified by John Wayne's The Green Berets). The two movies released just a few years earlier, Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter were more realistic, but at the same time were heavily stylized and allegorical. Platoon was simply a different animal. For one thing, it was focused on the daily life of the common grunts, specifically focusing on one poor green recruit who had no freaking clue what he had volunteered for. Chris is, essentially, Oliver Stone, who himself grew up in an affluent family and dropped out of college to enlist. That firsthand experience gives the film a heavy dose of realism—in addition to the carnage, we see little mundane things that we can all identify with, such as Chris packing way too much crap into his kit, oblivious to the fact that whatever he packs, he has to haul all over the countryside.
Secondly, everybody looks, walks, talks, acts like soldiers, not Hollywood's idealized version. The film's technical advisor, Dale Dye, put the entire cast through an intensive boot camp, so much so that they all do the little things right, whether it's holding their trigger finger outside the trigger guard, or automatically checking the chamber of any weapon they pick up. Details, details, details. (Dye also has a small but crucial role as the battalion commander.)
Thirdly, focus. Stone knows exactly what story he wants to tell—it's not an anti-war film, but rather a coming of age tale—and makes sure that that the various events don't eclipse Chris's journey. While Stone was writing the early drafts, he spent some time working with legendary writer Robert Bolt (oh, among others, A Man For All Seasons, Doctor Zhivago, and Lawrence of Arabia) on an unproduced screenplay; you can't help but think that Stone got some tips on developing character within a much broader context.
Finally, there's the acting. The three leads all do solid jobs (it's surprisingly easy to set aside Sheen's current public meltdown as you watch his performance), but it's the other, smaller roles that establish the image of an actual platoon. There are some heavy hitters in the group, including Forest Whitaker (Is the man capable of a bad performance? Oh, Battlefield: Earth; never mind) and a pre-21 Jump Street Johnny Depp. All the smaller roles are fleshed out enough that none of them feel like the usual assortment of cannon fodder; we feel a sense of loss when any of them get killed. Everything comes together to create a visceral experience that still sucks you in.
The disc is based on the Platoon: 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition. The MPEG-4 AVC encoded video is pretty solid, but there's no escaping the fact that we're talking about a 25 year-old film that was shot on a relatively low budget. The grain is noticeable, but not distracting, and the colors show signs of digital enhancement, particularly fires. At the same time, the level of detail can't be denied, particularly in facial expressions. It's hardly reference quality, but it's still pretty good. Particularly benefiting from the Blu-ray treatment is the final battle; they simply did not have enough lights for the nighttime sequence, so they decided to light the entire thing solely with flares; mounted on poles, the grips would shake the flares to create a jittery lighting effect that borders on the surreal. On my old VHS, at times it was hard to figure out what was going on, but on this disc, it bursts off the screen.
Audio is not quite as good. The original 4.0 track has been remastered to a DTS-HD 5.1, and while dialog is clear enough, overall the sound lacks low end punch, particularly gunfire and explosions.
The disc sports an abundance of extras, beginning with two commentary tracks, one from Stone and one from tech advisor Dale Dye. Both are interesting enough, but Dye's is a bit more engaging. There are also a number of deleted and extended scenes, with optional commentary from Stone. None of them is that enlightening, though it's fun to hear Stone talk about why each was left out. One does offer an alternate fate for Barnes; it's interesting, but gets short shrift here—it's a question that easily merits additional consideration.
The various featurettes focus partially on the production, but primarily on Vietnam vets, including "One War, Many Stories," presumably filmed after showing the movie to a group of vets who then share their own stories and realizations. The one noticeable void in the extras is the complete absence of the cast; why not bring some of them together twenty to twenty-five years later and do a group commentary track?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all its strengths, the movie does feel a bit dated. Most war movies that came after Platoon followed its lead with regards to realism, many upping the ante even further. This was only Stone's second directorial effort; he relies on Sheen's voiceovers far too much, not trusting the audience to put the pieces together on their own. Stone addresses that issue in his commentary, saying that he thought that the concluding voiceover was necessary to offer the possibility that something positive could come out of such chaos. That's a valid point, but while it's true that the voiceovers help Stone maintain the movie's strong narrative focus, the technique still comes across as heavy handed, particularly in retrospect.
Perhaps the best benchmark of Platoon's universal appeal can be seen simply by clicking on the Subtitles menu; the disc offers no less than twenty-one different subtitle tracks. Subsequent movies may have been better (Note: I am not talking about Pearl Harbor), but by the same token, those movies followed the trail blazed by Stone.
The court martial acquits Platoon on all charges.
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