zuhair vazir’s review published on Letterboxd:
'I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong... No Viet Cong ever called me nigger' - Muhammad Ali, 1966
From Sgt. Elias (Dafoe), the hippy 'Nam veteran carrying his XM177E2 like a cross, to Lerner's (Depp) lump in the throat - that flashes by - after witnessing a war-crime, to the hardened and menacing Sgt. Barnes (Berenger) giving a career high performance with a face with more battle scars than natural features.
The first thing the newbies witness after getting off the C-7: the Caribou, is body bags. 'New meat. You dudes gonna love the Nam.....' - 'For fucking ever.' Say the elder boys, who have been in the Jungle for some time now. They all see a pretty boy in the naive Chris Taylor (Sheen), with education privileges and a world of opportunities, who has volunteered; giving away all that to be a part of the mess that was Vietnam.
There's a shot of three men emptying makeshift toilet-cans. After the 'home-sick monologue' by King (Keith David), their silhouettes are shown against a dull orange/red background, with heat fumes making the shadows dance. Two men leave and the outline of Taylor stands there with a shovel in his hand. The scene resembles a shot from 'There will be Blood, 2007', where a disheveled Plainview is shown standing with a shovel, with an oil-rig on fire in the background.
We see Barnes for the first time as he barks out orders laced with heavy profanity and war lingo, 'tag him and bag him.' We see him with a pack of Marlboro's stuck to the band of his M-1 helmet called the 'steel pot' by the soldiers. The steel pot he wears does not have any 'Vietnam Helmet Art' on it, just that pack of cigarettes. Sgt. Barnes, from the very beginning is shown to have erased the line between right and wrong. For him, the jungle is his home. A terrible and violent home that has made a monster of a man; a home where the ones you thought you were protecting hide weapons for the Viet Cong, hence rattling the trust and blurring the line between the enemy and the ally.
'I am reality.'
A home where paranoia and misplaced rage make Barnes kill anyone who comes in his way of burning the whole shit-house down, even if it's Commanding Officer Lt. Wolfe (Mark Moses). The US battalion hierarchy in Vietnam was in place only until the men entered the jungles, dense with the Victor Charlies (VC). Then it was the survival of the fittest. The new recruits are clueless and as a result the first to die. 'And they say if you're gonna get killed in the 'Nam, it's better to get it in the first few weeks. The logic being you don't get to suffer that much'
The hedonistic, hookah smoking caterpillar (White Rabbit plays in the back) and high as a kite Sgt. Elias is later shown resting on a hammock in his tent, his shelter with his people. A bunch that enjoys spending their off time by taking drugs and listening to great music. Elias is shown looking at the night sky, 'I love this place at night, the stars. There's no right or wrong in them. They're just there.' His men play music, consume drugs and have Depp in their camp.
On the other hand there's Bunny (Dillon) and Junior (Reggie Johnson), who not only share Barnes' warped vision and gusto but also the tent. However Barnes is never shown succumbing to slumber or indulge any form escapism through drugs, thus making him indestructible, invincible and unbreakable.
Bunny and Junior are part of the Barnes' camp and they are also disillusioned, however more than Barnes who has a insatiable blood lust and a loyal following. Sgt. O'Neill (McGinley) is always besides Barnes, trying to be as tough and ruthless but his facade is torn in one scene where he fires up a Zippo to light Barnes' cigarette (without looking at it) and the lighter goes off. Sgt. O'Neill and Barnes both realise this and instead of a retake they carry on with a smug O'Neill and a glimpse of anger in Barnes eyes as he is waiting for O'Neill to fire up again, 'Yeah, they got two Lieutenants and a Captain.'
The helmet graffiti was a moniker for the young men fighting a lost war. Perhaps trying to make sense of it all: 'Just You and me, right, Lord?' says one piss-pot; another says: 'When I die bury me upside down so the world can kiss my ass'. 'Canon ball', 'Death Machine'. At the same time they have the 'sparrow track' peace sign with another 'greeny' (marker).
This duality of man and war is emphasized in 'Full Metal Jacket, 1987' as well. The famous, 'Born to Kill' helmet and a peace button. Kubrick said it was Jungian. This viewer also thinks that after all these were kids of the 1960's and much like the demonstrations back home by their their generation-cohorts, the soldiers also wanted to express themselves, even if from the other side of it all.
Oliver Stone recounts his days in Vietnam as he tells the story of not one war but many. The enemy is known yet Sgt. Barnes and his followers cannot be trusted during an ambush. The villagers are unarmed and posing zero threat but the soldiers' minds have become their own enemies, clouded with their own fears and the shock of sudden death of comrades. The combat scenes are chaotic, with well-built characters dropping like flies everywhere as the 'Bravo Company' walks into an ambush.
Bunny is terrified yet he lives with the bravado of Barnes who he worships, like the rest of the men from Sergeant Hell's Camp. The film uses real ammunition and RPG to blow up the set-pieces. It all turns out to be terrifyingly real and makes death look trivial. It's raining all the time in the jungle. When the downpour stops the mosquito becomes the enemy, after that the swamps, the hills, the leeches, the bunkers, a smoldering hot shrapnel pulled out of a soldier by Barnes (his redeeming moment), Lerner asking Taylor not to leave him as he gasps for air. At two hours, Stone manages to capture an essence of the futile war started by the French (the Indo-China war) and ended by Jimi Hendrix and the others at Woodstock. That is simply romanticizing. The war ended when America realised that they were shut in from all sides and no matter what, the enemy knew their home territory better than the invaders. The 'Vietnamization' of 1969 (to end in '73) followed by the imminent capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese is what stopped the madness.
Stone directs Platoon with passion and Dafoe and Berrenger give career-high performances among an eclectic and the trigger-happy (not all) bunch of other characters.
A sequence that has branded itself on the brain is when Sgt, Elias is sighted from the choppers, running from an army of the VC, unarmed and completely battle damaged. The scene is shot in slow motion with Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings', playing to harrowing, tragic and a Christ-like death scene. The agony on Dafoe's face is heart-wrenching, with helplessness amplified in the viewer's mind. When the powerful and 'kick in the nuts' scene comes to an end with a 'UH-1 Irogouis Huey' fly-by, the viewer can't help but keep thinking of Sgt. Elias' smiling face as he shared holy-smoke with Taylor, through a M16, Colt rifle, earlier in the film.
The still of the scene's final moments is also the choice for the original poster. The Adagio for Strings (although playing throughout the film) is amped-up when Sgt. Elias runs for his life, runs to make the sequence one of the best ever; from one of the best movies ever made. War or not.
Platoon, like Stone, is anti-establishment. It shows us what no other film had shown us before. The war-crimes behind the most popular war (proxy-war under the dark cloud of Communist Russia) in all of American history, in terms of pop-culture reference. It shows us boys turning into men and then dying. It shows us entire villages being burnt to ground by the US marines as a preemptive measure or plain old projection of all the negative emotions brewing under those helmets. Michael Cimino's 'The Deer Hunter, 1978' is everything but accurate in its portrayal of the Viet Cong and their motives.
A distressing, strangely fascinating and a marvelous achievement in film-making. Even after twenty-seven years, Platoon succeeds in making the viewers feel something, even if it's Berenger, half-smiling and looking at the camera; sending an electric surge down the spine.
'SHUT UP. Shut up and take the pain. TAKE THE PAIN.' - Sgt. Barnes