The Best Picture Project – Platoon (1986)

 Directed and Written by Oliver Stone

Starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe

Platoon (Special Edition)

There was a time when Charlie Sheen wasn’t a tabloid headline, when he actually seemed interested in being a dramatic actor. In fact, of his first half-dozen or so film roles, only one was comic, that being his brief appearance as the boy in the police station that Jeanie Bueller makes out with in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Similarly, there was also a time when Oliver Stone wasn’t a left-wing, crackpot, wind-bag – a thing that pains me to say, as I am a liberal –but was known as a top Hollywood screenwriter with an Oscar to his credit, for Midnight Express, and director on the come.

That time, for both, was 1986, and the movie was Platoon.

Because I’m not one to rehash plot details you can zip over to Wikipedia for that sort of thing but if you must know, let’sjust say that Charlie is a rich kid idealist who dropped out of college to join the infantry and go to war, where he has to choose between two competing superior officers – played by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe – and try his hardest not to be killed. But really, the movie isn’t necessarily about what it’s about – the Vietnam War – but is really a morality play, the struggle between good and evil and control over Charlie Sheen’s soul, much in the same way the liberals and conservatives now struggle to win the hearts and minds of other, young innocents.

Though Charlie Sheen was the star of the movie – well, not the star, that was Stone – the movie was really stolen out from under him by Tom Berrenger and Willem Dafoe. Andi n 1986, Dafoe was almost an afterthought because Platoon, really, was like a coming out party for Tom Berenger, as the evil Sergeant Barnes.

Before Platoon Berenger had been in a number of movies before then, most notably The Big Chill (at left, in the afro), and Platoon, and the Oscar now he received for it – and Golden Globe award – should have signaled the beginning of the second phase of his career, as a dramatic leading man. After all, from the way he seemed to command the screen, and from the intensity he brought to the role, it almost seemed as if a major talent had finally emerged.

Sadly, for all intents and purposes, Platoon was the pinnacle of Tom Berenger’s career. While Charlie Sheen would go on to varying levels of success – mostly as a comic actor on sitcoms – and Willem Dafoe, after garnering an Oscar nom here for his turn as Elias would earn a second Oscar nod for Shadow of the Vampire, Berenger hit no other highs. Aside from Major League, where Berenger would cross paths with Charlie Sheen again – a movie that Sheen really steals from him – he’s had no real box office or critical success. Part of me thinks this may be because he just chose lousy roles in lousy movies, but another part of me thinks that it’s because while he was nominated and lauded for his turn in Platoon, he didn’t really have to act, which is something that is required of an actor. No, in Platoon all he really has to do is glower, look mean and threatening, and that’s it. There isn’t really much depth or subtlety or nuance to his performance. It is just like the opening piano riff to Hookastank’s “The Reason”: one note. He’s really good at that one note, but that’s all there is. No, in Platoon, if you want real nuanced acting, look at Willem Dafoe, who is clearly the standout in the picture 25 years later, Jesus-death notwithstanding.

Twenty-five years on Platoon, for all the love it’s get’s, seems like one of the lesser of the Vietnam themed movies. At the time I can see it winning best picture. It was against a very weak slate of films (Hannah and Her Sisters is probably its strongest competition) and it has the cache of being a ‘Nam film made by a ‘Nam vet and was certainly brutal and serious. But in hindsight, compared to all the other Vietnam films, it seems like the lesser of the bunch. First, the movie is simple, and watching it and following the dramatic arc it made me think of Star Wars, with Elias (Dafoe) being Ben Kenobi, Barnes (Berenger) the Emperor/Darth Vader and Taylor (Charlie Sheen) and Luke Skywalker. Second, say what you will about the unevenness of Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now, both of those films are far more memorable than anything in Platoon. The Ride of the Valkyries, the napalm in the morning speech, the never get off the boat speech, the horror, the horror in Apocalypse Now? Or Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket? Those are all classic scenes whereas the only truly memorable bit from Platoon – after the Jesus moment for Dafoe – is Kevin Dillon marveling over how that head came apart and really, that’s only memorable because it’s revolting.

Still, lesser of not, Platoon represents the pinnacle of the Vietnam film. While Full Metal Jacket might have tried to stoke the fire, it wasn’t long before the whole thing turned into a joke when, in 1994, Forrest Gump was shot in the ass and then mooned the president when received his Congressional Medal of Honor. It the Vietnam War drama wasn’t dead before then, it certainly didn’t make it any further.

Trivia

Dale Dye was the technical adviser on thefilm and had a small part as Captain Harris. In Vietnam, where Dale Dye was a war correspondent, he knew Gustav Hasford, who wrote the book The Short-Timers, upon which Full Metal Jacket is based.

Additionally, there were a lot of young actors in this movie that really went on to make names for themselves. Johnny Depp was there, Forrest Whitaker, John C. McGinley and Keith David as well. But for me that one that sticks out as the most interesting is Corey Glover. In the film Corey Glover plays the part of Francis, the man who shares the hole with Charlie Sheen at the end of the movie, during the climactic battle. The thing that makes him interesting to me is that it was only a few years after this film that his band, Living Colour, was winning Grammy’s for the song “Cult of Personality”.

For A Complete List of Best Pictures and Those Watched, Click Here.

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