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Movie Review : 'Platoon': It's War At Ground Zero

December 19, 1986|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

In "Platoon," (UA Coronet, Odeon Showcase), writer-director Oliver Stone drops us as he drops his autobiographical 19-year-old, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), into life with the 25th Infantry in Vietnam. It's a war where there seems to be no master plan, no big picture and no advances. There is only terror, bone-deep exhaustion, nighttime patrols and the humid jungle, crawling with snakes, insects and the silent Viet Cong.

This is movie-making with a zealot's fervor. Stone, a college dropout, Vietnam infantryman himself with a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart, clearly wants us to understand what fighting in that war was like. He succeeds with an immediacy that is frightening. War movies of the past, even the greatest ones, seem like crane shots by comparison; "Platoon" is at ground zero.

By opening with no preamble, Stone put us into his soldiers' boots: An aircraft cargo bay yawns wide to discharge "the cherries," these achingly young soldiers, into the swirling, sulfurous dust of a Vietnam air base in 1967. Rounded up from map-dot towns like Pork Bend, Utah, and Pulaski, Tenn., rushed through training and shipped overseas, these recruits exchange incredulous stares with the war's old men at the base, 22- and 24-year-olds who look 40 years older. And they stare at the black rubber body bags being matter-of-factly flopped back onto their cargo planes.

Then they--and we--are in the jungle, where everything cuts or stings or goes off, where sleep is in two-hour shifts and there's never enough of it, and where the death of a "cherry" isn't the same as the death of a long-timer, because he hasn't yet paid his dues.

The platoon's two rival sergeants--and its twin moral poles--are established: Tom Berenger, his face a road map of scars, as Barnes, and Willem Dafoe as Elias. Both men are superb fighters and consummate leaders but Barnes' style is to be the stern father, Elias' the compassionate mother. Barnes is part of the camp's redneck "hooch" drinkers, the Merle Haggard "Okie from Muskogee" bunch; Elias is with its "White Rabbit " potheads, smoking everything at hand to numb the craziness, and there is no doubt on whose team Stone considers himself. (The actors, a fine match for each other, are magnificent, but it is particularly fine to see Dafoe as something other than a psychopath. His smile of pure sweetness at the film's end is one of its lingering images.)

"Platoon" has a few problems, a self-conscious voice-over in the form of Chris' letters to his grandmother, which tells us things Stone shows us eloquently enough, that his fellow soldiers are "the poor . . . the unwanted . . . the bottom of the barrel, yet they're fighting for our society and our freedom." The lessons that Chris says he will take away with him, as "a child born of those two fathers" (Barnes and Elias) are in a way more melodramatic and less important than the experience itself.

But what Stone has accomplished makes these demurs seem paltry. He has made the various men of the platoon vivid and immediate: Chris, whose coming-of-age will be so harrowing; O'Neill, the weaseling, fast-talking sergeant (Off-Broadway's John C. McGinley); King, the bandannaed, doping old hand (Keith David); Forest Whitaker as Big Harold; Bunny, the war-mad baby-faced killer (Kevin Dillon) and, in a performance that stands out for its veracity, Dale Dye as the captain at the final nighttime battle. (Ex-Marine Dye was hired to whip these actors into fighting shape--a trick William Wellman used in "The Story of G.I. Joe").

Stone has avoided most of the cliches of war films and in one astonishing sequence--King's farewell--he has so flown in the face of movie cliches as to make you grin with subversive delight.

And he has summoned up, like a Goya with a camera, the impact of cruelty on the faces and the souls of its perpetrators. It occurs during the platoon's raid on a village, immediately after they have found one of their men pinned to a tree, his throat slashed by the Viet Cong. Rage swirls around the men like a dust storm, hitting first one, then another group. It is Chris' lesson in how close he--the college man--can come to outright, vengeful murder, and it's Stone's horrifying suggestion of the roots of a My Lai-like massacre.

Technically, "Platoon"(rated R for its realistic, bloody scenes of war and for its language) is exceptional, in particular the editing by Claire Simpson, which keeps every detail of nighttime battle clear and whose long, flowing rhythms in the jungle encounter between Elias and his adversaries are magnificent. Like Simpson, cinematographer Robert Richardson is another veteran of Stone's earlier "Salvador"; both films share a firsthand fluidity and urgency.

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