When I first saw Platoon, in (I think) March of 1987, I loathed it as I had never loathed a film before. But in the 34 years since I’ve often wondered if I gave it a fair shake. I know I didn’t see it clearly the first time, because I was viewing it through the darkened lenses of my own Army career: I was an ROTC cadet, spending one godforsaken weekend a month in the wilds of Connecticut doing pretend battle with the Viet Conn, and anything that reminded me of these training exercises got my dander up.
Watching Platoon put me in the mood to blast some napalm into the projection booth. Some of the vulgarity and nastiness of Oliver Stone’s characters was evident in my fellow cadets, most of whom struck me as bullies, louts, philistines, jack***es, and jerks. Most of all, I hated Platoon because I hated its impeccably rendered feeling of rain. Ever been rained on for 36 hours and tried to sleep in it, squeezed in under a branch in a hole in the ground? That’s what I got out of ROTC. Still, the joke was on me: When I eventually did go off to a completely unexpected and very small war, it took place in a desert, which is not a bad place to fight a war if you have to. The Persian Gulf War was luxury compared to my miserable Eighties weekends in Connecticut. (Though winter in Saudi Arabia brings more rain than you’d think, and it’s surprisingly chilly as well.)
The second time I watched Platoon to its completion was last month. (It’s on Netflix at the moment.) Now that my soldier days are far back in the attic of my memory, I no longer loathe Platoon. I merely see it for what it is: a typical Oliver Stone joint. As such, it isn’t about anything much except hating America and walloping the audience: If you feel as though you’ve been whacked in the kidneys, roared at, and maybe puked on, Stone’s job is done.
Platoon doesn’t have an ounce of wit about it. Nor intelligence, beauty, subtlety, or subtext. (Stone, when he was winning a Golden Globe for his first Hollywood screenplay, Midnight Express, drunkenly informed the audience that the subtext of this film about an American guy locked up in a Turkish prison for drug smuggling was that . . . we lock up too many people for drug smuggling. Oh.) Everything Platoon has to say is right there on the surface, like a tattoo: “War is hell.” There are no layers to suss out. There is nothing to ponder. It’s not designed to be watched more than once, unless you like watching firefights punctuated by dumb macho one-liners, in this case classed up with a bit of baroque music on the soundtrack so you don’t notice that you’re bathing in war porn.
Like The Deer Hunter, the other Vietnam film to win the Best Picture Oscar — yep, those are still the only two, unless you count Forrest Gump, and I don’t — Platoon doesn’t really consider the special circumstances of Vietnam. The Deer Hunter is a Russian-roulette drama set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War; Platoon is a movie about a group of cruel brutes who all happen to be heavily armed in the jungle at the same time, but could just as easily be fighting any other war. There’s a reason why Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (released half a year later) has endured and Platoon has not.
Though it is (usually) unfair to blame the originator of clichés for being trite, Stone’s writing was bound to grow stale over time. His Vietnam memories, which are harrowing enough, got filtered through his writing style, which is pure Mickey Spillane pulp: all chest-thumping tough-guy dialogue and gory violence, unleavened and unredeemed by any actual ideas. Platoon’s script may be punchy, but it is no more serious than Stone’s scripts for Conan the Barbarian and Scarface, written around the same time. The attraction of Platoon in 1986 — when it won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Stone, who won the same award three years later for the vastly superior Born on the Fourth of July — was that it delivered a far more intense, more visceral and, crucially, more revolting approximation of the grunt’s Vietnam experience than had ever been put on screen before.
The Deer Hunter is not a combat picture and Apocalypse Now isn’t really, either. Aware that Stone was a Vietnam veteran (he dropped out of Yale to volunteer for the infantry), critics and audiences said: Yes, this is how it must have been. Perhaps it was, for some soldiers, but Stone’s take is so bombastic, contrived, and propagandistic that it’s essentially the left-wing counterpart to Rambo: First Blood Part II, the preposterous right-wing-revisionist blockbuster of the previous year.
As that film was a flag-waver, Platoon is a flag-burner, bitter and ugly. Within the span of a few weeks, Stone’s GIs casually murder villagers, burn down huts for no reason, and incessantly discuss murdering one another. Everyone speaks fluent Stallone. It’s because of Rambo and Platoon that we imagine everyone in Vietnam speaking this way: “tag ‘em and bag ‘em,” “shut up and take the pain” (surely the least helpful advice ever offered to a person bleeding to death), “keep your sh*t wired tight,” “All right, you cheese-dicks, welcome to the ’Nam,” “Excuses are like a**holes, Taylor, everybody’s got one” and the immortal “Die you mother****ers, die!” (Born on the Fourth of July doesn’t sound like this, and consequently never seems like a pulp novel.). The voiceover musings of Chris (Charlie Sheen) are such a string of banalities that they almost beg for Tropic Thunder to come along. “I don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong anymore,” he whines. (Er, killing unarmed civilians is wrong.) “Looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves.” (Well, yes, that’s obviously true, Chris, since you shot one sergeant who in turn shot another sergeant. No need to spell it out for us.)
The crudeness of Stone’s writing style, which mistakes profanity for intensity, matches the stick-figure characterizations: The three principals simply stand for Good (Willem Dafoe), Bad (Tom Berenger), and Soulful (Sheen). Everyone else just speaks military jive, half-swearing and half-jargon. It’s all corny macho bluster, totally devoid of the ironic wit of R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. Platoon’s only interesting bit of dialogue is the evil Sergeant Barnes’s justification for murdering the good Sergeant Elias, who was such a goody-goody he might have blown the whistle on war crimes: “Elias was a crusader. Now, I got no fight with any man who does what he’s told, but when he don’t, the machine breaks down. And when the machine breaks down, we break down. And I ain’t gonna allow that in any of you.” Rationalizing evil by calling it an imperative of the system, Barnes’s contention has a chilling historical resonance. And many morally wayward warriors must have reasoned along similar lines, to their moral peril.
Stone has been labeled a Hollywood intellectual because of his knee-jerk leftism, but he doesn’t have ideas, merely instincts. Platoon isn’t even a particularly strong anti-war film; it’s fairly easy to imagine that, one platoon over in the jungle, a combination of better leadership and better men is making it possible to fight in Vietnam without slaughtering civilians or fragging one another. Though parts of the film are solidly based in Stone’s memories, his actual experience, as related in the memoir Chasing the Light, wasn’t sensational enough to be a macho melodrama, which is what Platoon is. In writing this movie Stone was driven by both the self-gratification of indulging his contempt for America and his attraction to sordid crudity. Let’s hear it for Onan the Barbarian.