Skip to main content

I can’t believe we’re fighting each other, when we should be fighting them.

Platoon
(1986)

(SPOILERS) Oliver Stone won his first of two directing Oscars for Platoon, but it was one of three nominations at the 59thAcademy Awards; dual Best Original Screenplay nominations for Platoon and Salvador were also forthcoming (Woody won for Hannah and Her Sisters). Now, I think Salvador’s a fine piece of work, near-peak Stone operating at the height of his powers, and it’s worth remembering that he had previously won in the screenplay category for Midnight Express, but his writing for Platoon is by some distance the least of its virtues. As Pauline Kael noted, it’s like “a young man’s first autobiographical – and inflated – work” (Stone wrote it a decade before he eventually got to make it and its earliest form came not long after his tour of duty in Vietnam concluded). At its best, Platoon is visceral and ferociously uncompromising, but its merits are too often diminished by Stone’s would-be poetic lens, casting himself (through Charlie Sheen) as the sensitive, afflicted and conflicted soul who perceives more penetratingly than the rest.

You can see, or rather hear, that most glaringly with the narrational insights of Sheen’s Chris Taylor, writing to his gran – the character ran away to war out of social conscience borne from his privileged get-out-of-call-up-free, thus displeasing his parents – in the most pat philosophising, cod-psychological manner that quickly grates on the nerves. One might charitably see that as Stone writing the less than perspicacious and profound observations of a young man out of his depth, but alas, I think it’s characteristic of his blunt, head-first posturing elsewhere in his career.

He’s at particular fault in conjuring the warring dualities of good sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe, test driving his Jesus persona before Scorsese requested the real thing) and “Our Captain Ahab” Barnes (Tom Berenger, utterly fearsome, and sadly probably the last time he’d make a big impression in a movie). Okay, it’s not a subtle choice by Stone, presenting the good and bad sides of conscript behaviour this way, but you can just about go with it on the basis that the actors (who both received Oscar nominations) are so damn riveting. What you can’t go with is the meal of a commentary Stone makes of over-explaining what was already over-etched in the first place (“The war is over for me now, but it will always be there the rest of my days, as I’m sure Elias will be, fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called possession of my soul” – Yeesh!)

Kael’s essay on the film – as is generally the case with her reviews, it’s well worth checking out – particularly struck me for her insight into the writer-director’s character: “Elias is supposed to represent true manliness, but if Stone’s other films tell us anything – if this film tells us anything – it’s that he’s temperamentally more on the side of the crazy stud Barnes”. The observation reminds me rather of the tyrannical bombast of James Cameron, making a movie about peace over nuclear Armageddon and love conquering all while chewing out his cast and crew and generally putting them through hell (curiously, the beats charted by Mark Moses’ inept, queasily-beta lieutenant are almost exactly the same as William Hope’s in Cameron’s Nam-in-space sequel of the same year, Aliens).

Todd McCarthy’s review compared and contrasted Platoon with Salvador (as did Kael’s, to an extent), and he noted how, while the former “made many people feel certain realities of the Vietnam War in a way they evidently never had before”, the narration and the score “creates a severe distancing effect and immediately announces this an artistically ambitious film… Indeed, remove the narration and substitute a conventional action film score for this one, and it is guaranteed that Platoon would have won no Oscars, and likely wouldn’t have been nominated for any”. It would have been the superior film for it, though. The score – cynically? opportunistically? – uses Barber’s Adagio for Strings to milk maximum emotive response and a mournful, moving effect from… well, pretty much every scene, since what was originally a temp track is ladled on like so much syrup. David Lynch had the restraint and empathy to cue it during the climactic moments of release in The Elephant Man, but Stone treats his every scene that way (the most grandstanding being, of course, the Jesus Christ pose of the poster, occurring about forty-five minutes in as Elias is betrayed and killed for his messianic morals; unlike the actual Jesus, though, Stone advocates eye-for-an-eye justice, with doubts wrung out post-the-fact by the medium of narrational equivocation).

And yet, while these points, the ones McCarthy suggests got it the Oscar, are perversely the very ones that mean it should never have been within a shout, Platoon still packs a punch, despite the many imitators it spawned (I also recall the disbelief when a Platoon computer game was announced; Saving Private Ryan was at least saved that). The explosive mayhem is sudden, abrupt and disorientating, the savage vengeance visited on the village as disturbing as ever it was, and the climactic assault, as battalion headquarters is overrun, carries with it an impressive sense of abject powerlessness and terror. The less underlined, observational elements of platoon life, from the treatment of cherries to the intense weariness that envelops everyone, lend a verisimilitude that goes some way to counter the excesses, even if the extended sequence of Taylor’s initiation into stoner’s paradise suggests Stone really misses all that camaraderie (and given his subsequent ayahuasca excursions, the trip of it all too).

Besides Dafoe and Berenger, there’s a great weaselly performance from John G McGinley as Sergeant O’Neill (whose self-preservation instincts are almost too good, as evidenced by his final pay off); his association with Stone would last another two decades. Future luminaries Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Tony Todd and Johnny Depp (in an interpreter role that was heavily cut down) also appear in minor roles. My favourite performance on revisit, though, is probably Keith David’s good-humoured King; it’s probably the most naturalistic work in the movie and by far the funniest.

Sheen, on the other hand, I just couldn’t get to grips with. I think he’s well cast in Stone’s follow up Wall Street (which nevertheless often makes Platoon look restrained in earnestness and penchant for preaching), but here he too often comes across as Hollywood royalty playing in a sandbox, complete with Rambo bandana. Crucially – given he’s called on to supply the narration – he’s unable to make the riper dialogue (“I can’t believe we’re fighting each other, when we should be fighting them”) digestible.

Stone’s Oscar victory speech presented the film’s recognition as a triumph of coming to terms with the conflict (“What you’re saying is that for the first time you really understand what happened over there… and that it should never, ever in our lifetime happen again”). But all that could really be vouched for was that the Academy was as responsive to unconditional emotional manipulation as ever it was, regardless of backdrop.

And yet, for all the wash of Hollywood sentimentalising and myth-making, Platoon doesn’t feel phoney the way Saving Private Ryan does (post-beach). That might partly be down to Stone’s “been there” authenticity, but I suspect it’s more that he’s aspiring to an artistic statement here, in his own clumsy way, whereas Spielberg was simply out for kudos on his never-ending trail for acceptance as an intellectual, a weighty and important filmmaker, to sit alongside his (rightful) garlands as a crowd pleaser. If there had been justice at the Oscars on March 30 1987, it would have been Stone’s Salvador in contention for the top prize, and Platoon would have settled for its brace of technical statuettes.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.

A ship is the finest nursery in the world.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) (SPOILERS) An odd one, this, as if Disney were remaking The Swiss Family Robinson for adults. One might perhaps have imagined the Mouse House producing it during their “Dark Disney” phase. But even then, toned down. After all, kids kidnapped by pirates sounds like an evergreen premise for boy’s own adventuring (more girl’s own here). The reality of Alexander Mackendrick’s film is decidedly antithetical to that; there’s a lingering feeling, despite A High Wind in Jamaica ’s pirates largely observing their distance, that things could turn rather nasty (and indeed, if Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel  had been followed to the letter, they would have more explicitly). 

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.