Platoon gets down to too little
The knowledge that “War is Hell” probably dates back to the start of civilization. But the idea that war is chaos, that traveling to some distant jungle to fire mechanized weapons at men you’ve never even met isn’t just courageous or brutal but an act of existential craziness, is a uniquely modern one – and it has flourished in the Vietnam era. Just think of the two great sequences the first wave of Vietnam movies are remembered for: the agonizingly tense Russian-roulette scene in The Deer Hunter, and the epic helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. Both are grandiose, terrifying, “unreal” – they’re about the madness of the war, about the madness of war itself. We know the Vietcong didn’t actually make their prisoners play Russian roulette; we know American commanders didn’t blast Wagner from their choppers as they machine-gunned peasant villages. But The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now said, “That’s what it felt like.” The bravery, the pain, the sadism and terror and exhilaration – sensations that have been part of every war since the beginning of time were experienced differently in Vietnam, not only because the war was fought with technological weapons, not only because many of the men didn’t know why they were there, but because something in the fragile modern consciousness rejects the very idea of warfare. In these movies, war is such Hell, such utter, consuming chaos, that one comes away thinking nothing in the world – not the Commies, no, not even the Nazis – could truly make men know Why They Were There.
Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which is set near the Cambodian border in 1967, begins a new era in the way movies look at Vietnam. It has some of the same horrific, arty-modernist overtones The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now did, but essentially it’s a straight-forward combat saga, an almost diarylike account of one soldier’s physical experience of the war, with a good-versus-evil moral backdrop that places it squarely – and audaciously – in the tradition of Hollywood war movies. (I’d argue that that tradition excludes such pulp extravaganzas as Rambo and the Chuck Norris Missing in Action films, which use Vietnam as the setting for abstract exploitation fantasies, with the “gooks” as roving targets.) At heart, Platoon is a very conventional picture. That’s what’s good about it (it’s a supremely well-crafted classical-style war movie), and also why it’s ultimately a little unsatisfying. Stone has ambitions. Like Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead, he’s trying to detonate a war story from the inside out, to stay true to the male-romantic codes of the familiar combat genre yet also push beyond those codes, exposing the fears and psychological complexities that machismo denies, high-lighting the folly – the blindness – of those who covet military power for its own sake.
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