Platoon Review


I never thought I’d see a war film as brutal and uncompromising as The Deer Hunter, but Oliver Stone’s quasi-autobiographical film Platoon comes awfully close. The film’s you-are-there approach isn’t totally unique, but it has rarely been put to better use. Platoon gives you an idea of what war does to you and what being in Vietnam might have been like. Neither is pretty, making this a difficult film to sit through. But it’s an undeniably powerful experience.

Our set of eyes on the ground is Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a young American who dropped out of college to serve his country because he was tired of the burden of fighting being on the poor and uneducated. The film opens just as his time in Vietnam begins. He’s a fish out of water for sure, but he integrates himself with his fellow grunts, especially Elias (Willem Dafoe), a free-spirited leader of the platoon. Elias finds himself at odds with Barnes (Tom Berenger), Elias’ no-nonsense counterpart. After an incident during which Barnes needlessly murders a villager and almost murders a child, the tension between the two men boils over, and the platoon is split in two.

This is a film full of unforgettable characters and moments. Everyone knows the slow-motion shooting death of one of the characters, but perhaps the most memorable scene is the one in which Barnes shows his true colors at the village. It’s at this moment that you realize how brutal conflict can be. Whether Barnes was ever human is debatable, but if he was, it’s clear the war has sapped every bit of humanity out of him.

The battle scenes in Platoon are also quite impressive. Everything feels incredibly chaotic—not in a shaky-cam sort of way, but rather the characters don’t know what’s going on. The final confrontation with the Viet Cong in particular demonstrates not only how much the characters have changed, but also how little they know about what’s going on around them. When a plan falls through, what do you do? Just go run around and shoot people. That’s what.

The film also features one of the best ensemble casts ever. Charlie Sheen takes the lead with a fine performance, one of the best of his career. Chris is full of philosophy and optimism when his tour begins. By the end, he’s a shell of a human being. He no longer cares for his own well-being. He just wants to kill.

The two best performances of the deep ensemble were nominated for Oscars. Tom Berenger is a portrait of evil as Barnes. Willem Dafoe plays a slightly more complicated character. Elias earns our sympathy, simply by opposing Barnes. He earns our respect for stopping a brutal murder. However, he is still capable of killing, and when push comes to shove, he does just that.

The rest of the ensemble is rounded out by the likes of Johnny Depp (in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-him performance), Forest Whitaker, Keith David, John C. McGinley, and Kevin Dillon. David and Dillon have the meatiest roles. The former plays a happy-go-lucky soldier who is lucky enough to get out. The latter is a bloodthirsty disciple of Barnes.

Platoon is quite simply one of the most powerful motion pictures I’ve ever seen. War films are a dime a dozen, but they don’t make them like this very often. There’s nothing totally unique about it. It’s just an extremely well-told story. Since Platoon, Oliver Stone has been hit or miss. But he’ll always be able to hang his hat on this masterpiece, which is as good a film as any.

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