Platoon (Special Edition) Review
The Vietnam War wasn't about two sides facing each other on a battle-zone; it was a war situated in complete disorientation, with a soldier having to watch his back from three hundred and sixty degrees of danger as the location of each opposing force was always in question. Oliver Stone's Platoon is a frenetic explosion of a war movie. Not only does it turn you off war for good; it grabs the viewer by the throat and deposits them headfirst into the hellhole. The Vietnam War has often been the most contentious point in later twentieth century American history, and Platoon refuses to enter into the discussion other than to show the War from it's protagonist narrator. Released in 1986, amongst a second wave of Vietnam films (that followed the first wave of The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Coming Home), Platoon received four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Sound, and helped put Oliver Stone on the A-list of directors after the impressive Salvador.
Focusing on (and narrated by) young rookie Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a boy who volunteered to serve in order to integrate himself with the grass roots of American life, Platoon is an illustration of what it is like to serve the American army amidst the turmoil of Vietnam. Everything is thrown into the mix - the unbearable weather, the night-patrols with the battle against falling asleep, the surprise attacks, the drugs and most important the futility of the war itself and how it fuels man's inner-conflict. In terms of actual story, Chris finds himself having to choose between two brilliant but contrasting Sergeants in Bravo Company for what he calls the "possession of his soul". Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is ruthless, hateful and almost machine-like in his actions. Barnes seems suited to battle, in the sense that he'd be disappointed if the war ended. Showing complete disregard for his fellow soldiers, or even his fellow human beings, Barnes is feared and respected, and has a small tow of wannabe warriors hanging on his every move. The opposite camp is lead by Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), a liberal and friendly soldier who attempts to brand horrendous situations with humanity. Barnes is communicative and approachable to the band of soldiers that follow him, and is almost "Native Indian"-like in his spiritual beliefs. After Sgt. Barnes orders a massacre on a Vietnamese village due to its suspected involvement with Vietcong, him and Elias clash furiously, and the two 'camps' of soldiers split even further. Chris studies this leadership challenge between Barnes and Elias, and must ultimately choose which sergeant to follow, in what becomes the most merciless rites-of-passage progression a young man can ever experience.
At times it's hard to follow what is going on in Platoon, and that's just what Oliver Stone is intending. He wishes the audience to undergo every scarring experience that the soldier's themselves face, and not in an 'ultimate-realistic' sense of Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down, but through narrative, plot events, and other cinematic elements such as cinematography and music. Indeed, music plays an important part in the film, in its mixture of contemporary sixties rock and pop with Samuel Barber's Adagio For Strings, a theme so haunting and yet so poignant it strikes a heavy emotional chord. The cinematography by Robert Richardson renders the beautiful Vietnam locales through a war-zone of infinite space. No location feels completely safe, or completely devoid of hostile action, and at times even the sunshine is presented as the enemy, giving Vietnam an arid sense of uncomfortable existence. The editing by Claire Simpson is ultra-quick in the action sequences, and yet this gives the audience the perfect sense of being directly behind the soldiers, as they open fire and run away from the enemy.
The performances in Platoon are first-rate, and the film's success hinges upon the actors' success. Charlie Sheen, who took the role of Chris after his brother Emilio Estevez turned it down, gives the right touch of a character gradually turning adult after overcoming an initial naivete and innocence. Chris' relationship to Barnes and Elias is reminiscent of a child choosing between different ideologies of two father-figures. Out of these two figures, both Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe are completely different in terms of character and yet are as equally brilliant in their performances. Berenger gives Barnes the perfect sense of over-machismo and over-aggressive persona. It's almost like Berenger has yet to defeat the dark side of his character, and this is what separates him from Elias, who seems to have not only battled his dark side but also emerged victorious. Dafoe gives a perfect change of pace in his career, considering he nearly always portrays villains (soon as the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man), and as Elias, he is the film's moral guide-point. Other cast members made their names in Platoon, such as Johnny Depp (who had never left the country before), John C. McGinley, Forest Whitaker, Keith David and Kevin Dillon. The film obviously served as a toughening of their inner-strength, being that director Stone forced them to actually live like soldiers whilst shooting Platoon, as these actors went on to fine movie careers.
The biggest star of Platoon is Stone himself. Having served in Vietnam, and drawing upon his own encounters, Platoon was the first of Stone's Vietnam trilogy which also contained Born On The Fourth Of July and Heaven & Earth. Stone isn't melodramatic with his scripting, and he employs dialogue that is straight and to the point, almost deliberately lacking the poetry of Apocalypse Now. Also, Stone doesn't linger on any sequence longer than necessary, and whilst he does convey how hellish Vietnam is as an experience, he still manages to employ a decent narrative, with fully-structured characters. Stone however, comes into his own with the raw battle sequences that pack a visual punch and emotionally choke you, as if the audience is given full access to the never-ending nightmare.
Some of the action sequences may have been surpassed by more recent efforts, but Platoon still holds an important part in both cinematic history and the recent emerging genre that is Vietnam movies. It's very hard to say if it is Oliver Stone's best movie, but it certainly is one of his most worthy, and the fact that it isn't his best is a testament to his excellent portfolio.
Academy Awards 1986
Best Director - Oliver Stone
Best Film Editing - Claire Simpson
Best Sound - Charles Grenzbach, Simon Kaye, Richard D. Rogers, John Wilkinson
Academy Award Nominations 1986
Best Supporting Actor - Willem Dafoe
Best Supporting Actor - Tom Berenger
Best Original Screenplay - Oliver Stone
Best Cinematography - Robert Richardson
Presented in an anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 ratio, the transfer is mostly very good but does suffer from occasional amounts of grain, dirt and artefacts. Also, the print feels hazy at times, as if possessing a distinctive eighties feel, but even so, the transfer is very good considering it hasn't been remastered. Colours are excellent, particularly the bright green effect the film contains, almost as if it is downplaying all other colours.
Presented in a 5.1 surround mix, the sound track features mostly a two track stereo mix with ambient background noises filling the rears as if enveloping the audience into the middle of the locations. This is particularly evident in action sequences and scenes in which heavy rain can be heard falling. The most extensive use of surround events occur for such actions as helicopters flying over head and explosions occurring, in which aggressive spatial channelling is put to use.
Menu: A surprisingly good animated menu from MGM, featuring images of soldiers and war combined with sound effects and Barber's Adagio For Strings. The selection transitions are also very good, with some well-chosen shots from the film given an almost spiritual golden-tint to them.
Packaging: Presented in an amaray casing, with cover artwork the same as the previous bare-bones release other than the words SPECIAL EDITION displayed across the top. This is probably why MGM have given Platoon an extra cardboard-dust-cover, which slides over the amaray and has been given a stylish artwork design.
Audio Commentary With Oliver Stone: Oliver Stone is one of the most enthusiastic and interesting commentators in the film industry despite having a dry tone, and he doesn't need to come across as a neurotic babbler such as Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson. Despite this, one cannot help but notice how Stone sounds like Martin Sheen's narration in Apocalypse Now, with an almost whispering husky voice. There are a few pauses during the comments, but Stone mixes his commentary with insight into the narrative structure of the film well, coupled with some informative behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Such titbits include how Stone revealed that he chose not to film Tom Berenger's prosthetic-enhanced scar on his left side of his face as much as could be avoided, as the makeup was damaging to Berenger's face.
Audio Commentary With Military Supervisor Captain Dale Dye: This is an excellent commentary from frequent actor/military advisor Dale Dye, who served as chief advisor to Oliver Stone on Platoon. Because Dye has extensive acting experience, he doesn't belong to the usual group of boring experts on film, and he packs a tremendous amount of information into his comments. Because of his military background, Dye has a fantastic memory for the smallest detail and he manages to convey this in an interesting manner. What's interesting is that Dye also has tremendous respect for the actors in the film, and frequently reels off the names of the actors on screen and praises them. Dye mentions an interesting argument he had with Stone over the portrayal of soldiers' dope smoking antics in the film, which he argued wasn't exactly the same as in reality. If anything, a portion of Platoon's success can be attributed to the techniques employed by Dye when it came to advising Stone on the picture and ensuring the actors were in proper shape for a war movie.
Tour Of The Inferno - Documentary: An extensive fifty one minute documentary that features interviews from the full range of cast and crew members who have since become much more celebrity-like in their status - such as Johnny Depp, Charlie Sheen and Forest Whitaker. The documentary also contains many examples of behind-the-scenes footage shown in black-and-white, which suggests that the actors' lives on the set really were mirroring that of the soldiers they were portraying. Dale Dye features prominently in the documentary, and his comments further corroborate the notion that he had a heavy hand in ensuring the authenticity of the world of Platoon. Presented in fullscreen.
Original Theatrical Trailer & TV Spots: The original trailer plays heavily on the notion that Oliver Stone has served in Vietnam, as if this fact gives the film a sense of extra importance and authenticity. Presented in anamorphic 1.78:1. Three TV Spots are also included, and market the film from a slightly different angle. The TV Spots are presented in fullscreen.
Salvador DVD Trailer: This isn't a trailer for Oliver Stone's other film Salvador, but is actually an MGM trailer advertising the features of the simultaneous DVD release of the film.
Stills Gallery: This is split into two sections - Behind The Scenes is a two minute roll of photos from the making of the film. Poster Artwork is a roll consisting of a few seconds which demonstrates the poster artwork for the marketing of the film.
Platoon is rightly regarded as one of the most important war films to have been made, and features a stunning blend of important narrative, action and morality. This Special Edition DVD release is obviously far superior to MGM's previous bare-bones offering and is essentially the same as the Laserdisc and the Live release, which has seen astronomical prices on internet auction sites. The picture and sound quality do the film justice and the extras are excellent and well chosen, which suggests that at an RRP of £17.99 Platoon is an excellent purchase.