Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), a critically acclaimed Hollywood film about the Vietnam War, was the first in its category to be directed by someone who saw combat in that most divisive of U.S. wars. The film, which cost $6 million to make, grossed $160 million and won four Oscars, including Best Film and Best Director. Like his cinematic alter ego, Chris Taylor (played by Charlie Sheen), Stone abandoned a wealthy family and an Ivy League education for a chance to fight in Vietnam, just as his grandfather had fought in World War I and his father had fought in World War II. In 1967-68, Stone was stationed near the Cambodian border, and it took him about a day to realize that he had made a horrible mistake. More than once, the pressure of battle caused Stone to go over the edge, once shooting at an old man's feet (as Chris does in the film), and once attacking the Viet Cong with such foolish ferocity that he was called a hero and awarded a Bronze Star. He also received a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster for his two injuries.
Stone's own experiences helped make Platoon an especially valuable vehicle for conveying the immediacy and brutality of armed conflict. During Stone's second week in Vietnam, his platoon encountered some Viet Cong and, during the ensuing battle, he was wounded in the back of the neck and the soldier next to him had his arm blown off. Suffering only a flesh wound, Stone was soon back in combat. He said most soldiers fell into one of two camps, as shown in the film: the lifers, the juicers, and the unintelligent whites in one camp; and the progressive, hippie, dope-smokers—who wanted only to survive the war with some integrity intact—in the other. Stone fell in with this second group. After being wounded again, he was transferred to the platoon where he met Juan Angel Elias, the inspiration for Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) in Platoon. The part-Spanish, part-Apache, compassionate Elias proved to Stone that someone could be both a good soldier and a decent human being. Stone also met a facially scarred officer who would become the inspiration for Sgt. Barnes—the best soldier Stone ever met, but also an angry loner obsessed with killing and getting even.
Platoon is remembered for its authentic and unbiased portrayal of combat. During the war, the only Hollywood movie dealing with the subject had been The Green Berets (1968), a laughably bad John Wayne vehicle partially financed by the U.S. government, little more than a World War II-type film with propaganda added, and so inaccurate that the last scene, of the sun setting in the east, seemed appropriate. The Rambo and Missing in Action films used the war as an excuse for some comic-book macho fantasies, with the U.S. winning some battles for a change. The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) were great films, but they seemed to be condemning war in general, not this particular one. Platoon immediately dropped the viewer into a jungle so thick that technological superiority became meaningless. Only Platoon is so filled with closely observed details—the snakes, the mosquitoes, the ants, the leeches—that it was deemed absolutely authentic in every respect. As Stone says, the film shows kids "what combat is really like, and what war really means.… I hope a lot of kids who see Platoon will think twice. Maybe they won't make the same mistake I made."
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Platoon ★★★½ 1986 (R)
A grunt's view of the Vietnam War is provided in all its horrific, inexplicable detail. Sheen is wooden in the lead, but both Dafoe and Berenger are resplendent as, respectively, good and bad soldiers. Strong, visceral filmmaking from fearless director Stone, who based the film on his own GI experiences. Highly acclaimed; considered by many to be the most realistic portrayal of the war on film. 113m/C VHS, DVD . Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Francesco Quinn, Forest Whitaker, John C. McGinley, Kevin Dillon, Richard Edson, Reggie Johnson, Keith David, Johnny Depp, Dale Dye, Mark Moses, Chris Pederson, David Neidorf, Tony Todd, Ivan Kane, Paul Sanchez, Corey Glover, Oliver Stone; D: Oliver Stone; W: Oliver Stone; C: Robert Richardson; M: Georges Delerue. Oscars '86: Director (Stone), Film Editing, Picture, Sound; AFI '98: Top 100; British Acad. '87: Director (Stone); Directors Guild '86: Director (Stone); Golden Globes '87: Director (Stone), Film—Drama, Support. Actor (Berenger); Ind. Spirit '87: Cinematog., Director (Stone), Film, Screenplay.
pla·toon / pləˈtoōn/ • n. a subdivision of a company of soldiers, usually forming a tactical unit that is commanded by a lieutenant and divided into several sections. ∎ a group of people acting together: platoons of sharp lawyers. ∎ (in baseball and other sports) a pairing of two or more teammates who play the same position at different times: in 1982 the Orioles employed a productive left-field platoon of Lowenstein, Ayala, and Roenicke. • v. [tr.] (in baseball and other sports) have (an athlete) play in rotation with one or more teammates at the same position: he was underrated because of Stengel’s platooning him with Woodling. ∎ [intr.] play a sport in this way: Polonia mostly platooned in his three years with the A's.