Film Review 2017 - #15 Platoon

Platoon (1986)

This is the second Vietnam war movie I’ve watched as part of the 2017 Christmas DVD series.   My experience of Platoon is thus inevitably coloured by my recent viewing of Full Metal Jacket.  If Full Metal Jacket is a brilliant work of self-contained art by an auteur, then Platoon is a precision punch to the solar plexus by a master craftsman.

Three other things have coloured my experience of the movie.

First, I read ‘Dispatches’ by Michael Kerr a few weeks ago.  ‘Dispatches’ presents the experiences of a young journalist embedded in the Vietnam conflict and was described by John Le Carré as ‘the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time’.  It is a truly astonishing piece of work.  (Interesting to note, too, that, according to Wikipedia, “several of the fictional (composite character) soldiers mentioned in the book were used as the basis for characters in the movies Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.”)

Originally published in 1977, ‘Dispatches’ is very clearly part of the process by which America, in experiencing its first defeat, began to face up to its “end of innocence”.  (Movies such as Full Metal Jacket and Platoon and The Deerhunter and Apocalypse Now were also part of that process.) Close to 60,000 Americans – average age 19died during the Vietnam War.  Since that experience (in all its manifestations, including shame) it has become impossible for the US to risk the mass death of its youth overseas.

Second, I am writing this review on Armistice Day.  This is, naturally, a day of particular reflection on war, especially its human cost.  (I wrote here about my recent trip to the war graves in north-west France.) Perhaps such a day, and the reflections such a day engenders, exposes one more fully to the power of a film like Platoon.  The film is, if nothing else, an essay on the ‘human cost’ of war (both physical and psychological) and it contains some of the most powerful scenes I have ever seen on screen.  (It won the Oscars for both Best Film and Best Director.)

Third, the first time I saw the film was at the cinema in 1986, when the film was new and I was twenty one.  It was heralded then as ‘the great work’ from a man – Oliver Stone – at that time emerging as one of the finest exponents of the art of film directing.  It was – it is – a great film; but my reflection as I prepared to re-watch it was that, when I saw it the first time, I was pretty much the same age as the characters depicted.

The ‘grunts’ had an average age of nineteen; while the sergeants and captains and lieutenants were 22 and 24 and 26.

And viewing it again, what hit me hardest – as I watched the distressingly visceral representation of the stress, the horror, the pain, the loss, the wounds, the anguish, the death – what hit me hardest was that it is now my children who are the same age as the grunts, the sergeants, the captains, the lieutenants.

How lucky we – they – are.  How profoundly, deeply fortunate that they – we – live in a time when the mass death of our young is no longer part of our experience.

The twenty-one year old me watched Platoon and knew two things: that the Vietnam War had taken place in my lifetime; and that I, personally, was at virtually no risk of having to go through anything like it.

The fifty-two year old me watched Platoon and knew that, whilst my sons (both in their twenties) might know little of Vietnam, they were as safe as I had been from the risk of enduring such horror.

(I know, of course, that the world has not been a war-free zone since the end of the Vietnam War; and I’m well aware, too, that this privilege – of living a life essentially free from the worry of a violent death – is not afforded all classes, nations or peoples; but the prospect of mass death is increasingly distant and – as Steven Pinker has shown – it is a statistical truth that the number of people dying in wars has fallen relentlessly over recent decades.) (Also - Brexit trigger warning - the long peace from which so many of us have benefitted is probably not directly at risk from Brexit, but I’m pretty sure it nudges the odds in the wrong bloody direction…)

Anyway.  If you have not seen Platoon, watch it.  If you have already seen it, watch it again.  It’s not comfortable, but that’s precisely the point.

For light relief you can admire Willem Dafoe being brilliant; you can keep an eye out for the painfully young Johnny Depp (yes, really!) and Forest Whitaker and Kevin Dillon; you can reflect on the fact that Charlie Sheen is in a major Vietnam movie only a few years after his dad played a remarkably similar character in another major Vietnam movie; and so on.  You can even worry – as I did – that the genius parody of Tropic Thunder might have retrospectively rendered the blood-and-gore scenes in Platoon unbearably kitsch.  (It doesn’t.) (See my piece on ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ for more on this phenomenon.) 

Once the light relief is over, though, allow the film to deliver its message.  Allow its punch to land.  And be very, very grateful, both that the film exists, and that neither you nor your children will ever know what it’s really like.


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