Judge Ryan Keefer reminds you to always thank a war veteran. Just do it.
Our review of Platoon (Blu-ray), published June 6th, 2011, is also available.
The first casualty of war is innocence.
Of all the Vietnam movies that came out during the '80s, Platoon is on the short list of films that have stood the test of time. Oliver Stone, who had already won an Oscar a few years back (for Midnight Express), directed a film that was loosely based on his experiences in the war two decades prior. Dedicating it to the men who fought and died in the War, Stone's film won four Oscars (including Best Picture) and helped propel him in the upper echelon of directing elite. Is this thing still good after 20 years?
Facts of the Case
Platoon recounts the experiences of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen, Major League) who, like Stone, dropped out of college (in Stone's case, Yale) to join the Army and fight in the Vietnam war. He's thrown into a platoon with a variety of characters. The two main leaders who frequently bump heads are Barnes (Tom Berenger, The Big Chill), a battle-scarred soldier who is short on people skills but can be depended on when things get hairy, and Elias (Willem Dafoe, To Live and Die in L.A.) the moral heart of the platoon and the film despite drug use which he takes to escape the madness of war. Other recognizable faces in the platoon include John C. McGinley (Scrubs), Forest Whitaker (Bird) and Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Platoon covers Taylor from the time he sets down in Vietnam to the time he goes home because of injury.
In their quest to get things done right, the soldiers in Platoon are clearly not your father's war film soldiers. They drink, they smoke, and they do things that normal people would find repulsive, so that they could find relief from the stress and hell of jungle combat. And the wealth of recognizable talent provides some faces that you would know well. And when some of those faces disappear, as part of a then-rapidly growing butcher's bill of war casualties, the viewer has a vested interest. Those losses are magnified even further with how Stone presents each soldier, from downtime to rock and roll. The platoon's losses are our losses.
Stone's telling of the stories is as engrossing as they come. Taylor is the cellular version of Stone, and before Stone became the conspiracy-embracing lunatic and sometimes brilliant cinematic auteur that we love so much, he was a foot soldier in the 25th Infantry Division (Tropic Lightning Ollie!), a kid who dropped out of college to fight for his country. It possibly may have been the drugs that helped shaped his belief structure to where it is now, but when you're a college-aged kid and you see some of the shite that he did when he was in the bush, it easy to understand how you could not know which way was up from time to time, and you get to witness this in spades here.
Taylor is dropped into a platoon that has various smaller groups that occupy it. The beer drinkers—the hard charging fighters—were primarily white boys, with Barnes at the helm, who demands mission proficiency from everyone and will not accept anything less. The black soldiers would listen to Motown and smoke grass, perhaps as escapism from their circumstances. Elias is a bit more of the softer hand who works with the newer people to get them the experience they need to save each other's lives. While there's a lot of the conservative (Barnes) vs. liberal (Elias) or the pro vs. anti-war effort for Asia, the Barnes side vs. Elias side are viewpoints that probably were expressed in the wars before it, and have certainly been expressed since. Whether the officers want to admit it or not, there's some downtime that allows for this kind of thing to develop among squads/platoons, and trying to curb it would only result in a morale downturn and would not benefit anybody.
Aside from a couple of new wrinkles, the extras on Platoon come from a special edition that was released several years back, but thankfully the extras are split over two discs for consumption. Freeing up the disc space helps the picture a little bit, and the sonic surprise is that there's a DTS track on this version too, albeit a muted one. During the battle scenes, the explosions and gunshots have more low-end action to them, but nothing even close to some reference material. There are two commentary tracks that are both worth listening to. Stone's is first, and as always, he is a fountain of information about the production, from the score to the location to anything else you can think of. As an added bonus, his recollections about his time in country help to bring another level of depth to his stories. At one point, Sheen's brother Emilio Estevez was cast as Taylor, which would have been interesting. The second commentary from military advisor Dale Dye (Saving Private Ryan, Under Siege) covers the efforts Dye went through in order to get things as right as possible, along with the pleasure he gets in trimming the fat from bloated Hollywood actors in order to make them tough super duper troopers. Dye also helps put a good context into some military routines for non-military people, like the value of Tabasco sauce in the field, for instance. There was one part where Sheen asked Dye about the effects of morphine after a combat injury (considering the inquisitor, it's a mite bit funny), but otherwise, this was very enjoyable to listen to. Dye does get a little quieter during the combat scenes at the end, but as a Vietnam vet himself, is quiet for a justifiable reason.
Disc 2 has several features, starting with about 10 minutes worth of deleted and extended scenes with commentary by Stone. It's clear this is what was left on the cutting room floor, which helps shows people some more details from Taylor's point of view and some more perspectives on Barnes and Elias, along with a scene where Barnes lives, which is a bit of a surprise. "Flashback to Platoon" is a new documentary running about 50 minutes that covers the experience in its real-life historical context with various authors and historians, and discussing some notable events like the Tet offensive, the Viet Cong war strategy and the anti-war effort at home. From there, the focus switches to the production of the film, which is a little shorter than the first part, but does have new interviews with Stone, Sheen and Producer Arnold Kopelson (The Fugitive). Then the transition goes to the legacy of the film, and many critics (and Vietnam vets) discussed their feelings about it. A worthy complement to this is the older "Tour of the Inferno" which is also about an hour long, and looks more at the production from beginning to end (and subsequent public reaction). There are newer interviews with many of the cast members (along with Stone and Dye), along with a reunion of the platoon that Stone served in. McGinley gets the prize for weirdest "What if?" thought while training in the Philippines with the other cast members (under Dye's close eye). It's an amazing look at the production. "One War, Many Stories" focuses on the recollections from the Vets and gives them a chance to discuss the film after a recent Vets-only screening and everyone shares their thoughts and feelings. One Vet recalls a particularly touching story about a private he saw, and it's clear that it's still a raw nerve for many to this day. "Preparing for the 'Nam" gives the Vets some more screen time as they recall where they were in their lives when they decided to sign up and go through Basic Training, and what they got from it. There are some still galleries, teasers and trailers that round things out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only flaw in this movie is Stone's interpretation of Muy Lai that he employs when the troops enter an anonymous village. It's really more of a gripe to other filmmakers who employed this as part of their Vietnam films (Casualties of War being the first one that comes to mind), so although this part of the film is (by Stone's admission) a partial dramatization, everything else here is real.
Platoon remains one of the most important films of the last quarter century and is one of the best war films to be realized on screen. Stone and Dye understood the importance of getting things right as they were making this, and their hard work clearly shows. Not only do they depict the hell that a Vietnam vet had to go through before coming home, but they helped show the world some of the mundane activities that others weren't privy to unless they had served. The most memorable shot may be of Dafoe as he is shot by opposing forces, but the best shot is of Dye at the end of the film after the last long battle. Aside from the outward expression, the internal reflection he must have been going through is powerful beyond words.
A heartfelt not guilty. This justice and the court salute those who served, those who serve today, and those who have paid the ultimate price as part of their service.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Oliver Stone
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