I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1986 winner, Platoon, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe.
Platoon is a Vietnam War drama that follows one unit from the viewpoint of new recruit Chris (Sheen). The film shows the human side of warfare, for better and worse. Based on Stone's Vietnam experiences, the movie was praised as the first film to depict the realities of the Vietnam War.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were Children of a Lesser God, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Mission and A Room with a View. Platoon also won Oscars for Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.
As the film opens, Chris arrives in a troop transport and immediately sees a helicopter arriving from the field, bringing dead soldiers for transport home. A foreshadowing of what is to come, the sight also informs Chris that his ideas about war were naive.
Unlike most of his fellow soldiers, Chris volunteered for the Army, a decision he would come to regret. Through his eyes, the viewer experiences the living conditions, interpersonal relationships and rivalries, and battlefield brutalities of the war front.
At the beginning of the film, nearly 30 soldiers serve in the unit, with casualties claiming soldiers throughout the film. It's understandable, perhaps, that they all cope in different ways, some becoming fatalistic, others nihilistic, some dulled to the pain, others a walking nerve. Chris, through his letters home, reveals his plunge into depression and his growing fears he will not return home.
The film is loosely based on Oliver Stone's own experiences fighting with two units in Vietnam. He wrote the script in 1976, while his memories were still fresh, but could not convince a studio to make the film until a decade later. Vietnam veterans who previewed the film, including members of his own unit, applauded the movie for its accurate portrayal of wartime experiences.
Stone shot the film on location in The Philippines, and the actors were required to spend two weeks undergoing an intense boot camp to prepare them for their roles. Such a practice has become almost commonplace among today's directors of war movies, for the way it helps actors get into character, bond as a unit, and learn to imitate proper military form with weapons and maneuvers. Shooting began immediately afterwards so the actors wouldn't lose their edge. In addition, Stone has said that he wanted the actors to be fatigued so they would be burnt out and therefore in character.
Since the film was shot sequentially, for the most part, as characters were killed, the actors went home, as well. This helped to reinforce the emotions of the remaining cast members, who had bonded with, and likely missed, their fellow actors.
The strengh of Stone's movie is the strong group of characters. A cross-section of American life, they nevertheless find a common bond through the struggle to survive. Two of the platoon's sergeants, Berenger's Sgt. Barnes and Dafoe's Sgt. Elias, approach the battlefield very differently: with Barnes (who has survived seven shootings and bears a prominent scar on his cheek) taking a brutal, hold-no-prisoners approach, and Elias still maintaining strict moral codes. As Chris observes, it's like the two sergeants are battling for the souls of the men who serve under them.
The cast of Platoon is impressive, boasting several actors who later went on to receive acting nominations or Oscars. Berenger was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for Platoon and won the Golden Globe for the same role. Dafae was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Shadow of the Vampire (2000) and was also nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Platoon. Sheen won a Golden Globe for the TV series Spin City (1996) and has been nominated for and won mutiple other awards.
In addition to the principles, among the cast are Forest Whitaker (won Best Actor Oscar for The Last King of Scotland, 2006), John C. McGinley (nominated for Television Critics Association Award and Golden Satellite Award for his role on TV series Scrubs; won Festival Director's Award at Method Fest for Two Tickets to Paradise, 2006), Kevin Dillon (nominated for Golden Globe and Emmys for his role on TV series Entourage), Mark Moses (won Screen Actors Guild Awards for the TV series Madmen, 2007 and Desperate Housewives, 2004); and Johnny Depp (nominated for Best Actor Oscar for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 2007; nominated for Best Actor Oscar for Finding Neverland, 2004; nominated for Best Actor Oscar for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003; nominated for and won multiple other awards).
Interestingly enough, the cast also included, in a small part, Vietnam veteran Captain Dale Dye, who trained the actors in military practices. Dye is the founder of Warriors Inc., which provides technical advisory services to the entertainment industry. In a more unlikely role, the lead singer of the group Living Colour played one of the members of the unit.
The film is the first part of Stone's Vietnam War trilogy, which also included Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven & Earth (1993).
Because of the script, the attention to detail, and the incredible acting, Platoon was not only the first realistic Vietnam War movie but also stands as one of the best war movies of all time, along with previous Oscar winners All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957) and Patton (1970).
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)
The best war movies are really stories about human nature.