Sunday, March 13, 2016

Audient Auscars Extended: Platoon

This is the penultimate of my viewings of all the best picture winners. Eighty-eight down, one to go.

Platoon is a prime example of a film that surely would have impacted me differently if I'd seen it the year it came out -- 30 years ago -- than seeing it now.

I was 13 when Platoon won best picture, and I think it was the first Oscars where I was really conscious of the timing of the ceremony, though I can't recall if I actually watched it. I was aware of past winners, but Platoon had the most real-time immediacy of any Oscar winner to that point. For example, I remember looking at the headline in The Boston Globe the next morning that pronounced Platoon the winner. (And I guess they put the newspaper to bed particularly late on Oscar night, since the ceremony would have finished after midnight -- another likely indicator that I did not actually watch it.)

Over the years I think I built up some rather mythic notions of how violent, bloody, and overall disturbing Platoon must have been. I'm not going to say that was the reason I've avoided it until now, because I've been willing to wade knee deep into blood in my subsequent viewing experiences. I just haven't gotten around to it, and the likelihood that Platoon is a really strong movie seemed to decrease with me over the years as I no longer heard it talked about much. It was one of those best picture winners people just seemed to have moved on from.

Having watched it now, I get why.

In many ways, Platoon does not feel very remarkable -- technically, emotionally, thematically or dramatically. Aside from a couple gory looking injuries, it wasn't as graphic as I expected it to be either. It was hardly the first movie about Vietnam -- in fact, films such as The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now had delved into it almost a decade earlier, and those are only the classics. But it did kick off a string of other mainstream Vietnam movies, from really good movies like Good Morning Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July (also directed by Platoon director Oliver Stone) to more forgettable entries like Hamburger Hill and Casualties of War (neither of which I've seen in order to forget them). And that was just the remaining three years of the 1980s. The cinematic obsession with Vietnam carried on into the first half of the 1990s. Platoon was a trendsetter for sure.

But it's not a great movie. It's a pretty good movie and I'm glad I've seen it, but nothing about it stands out as particularly strong or memorable. At the time, it was enough that Platoon was a document containing broad strokes about The Way Things Were in Vietnam. With Platoon out of the way, other films could concentrate on more specific elements of the war. Platoon had been our primer, and now we were ready for those more specific elements -- you know, like boot camp (Full Metal Jacket), the experience of civilians tangential to the war (Good Morning Vietnam) or the return of wounded veterans (Born on the Fourth of July).

Part of its lack of technical distinctiveness can be tied to the fact that it was one of Stone's very first films. I guess I didn't realize at the time that Stone had essentially burst on the scene with Platoon, which made his second Oscar win for directing Born on the Fourth three years later all the more striking. I had thought these awards were a culmination of years of Stone gracing us with his cinematic skill, and apparently, even becoming more sophisticated about film history over the years, I had still not realized that Stone's filmography basically started with Platoon.

Wait, Vance. It sounds like you're still not very familiar with Stone's filmography. He directed his first feature in 1974, a full 12 years before Platoon.

That's true. But had you heard of the film Seizure? Neither had I. Or for that matter, had you heard of the film The Hand, his second feature he directed in 1981? Neither had I. Given the anonymity of his first two films and the crazy 1986 he had -- in which his other film, Salvador, received two Oscar nominations, including James Woods for best actor -- then saying he burst on the scene in 1986 seems to be pretty accurate.

But this movie just doesn't look as sharp, as polished, even as Wall Street would look a year later. I've always thought of Stone as a technical director, but his technique is pretty raw in Platoon. Some of it looks downright shoddy. Then again, I do have to remember that it was the 1980s, and the standards for what looked good are not necessarily comparable to today's standards. I'd like to think I'm saying it looks shoddy even within the context of 1986, but I should note that potential biasing factor in my assessment.

I was also surprised to learn that both Tom Berenger and Willem Defoe were nominated in the best supporting actor category. Much as I love him in Major League, Berenger has always struck me as a pretty limited actor, and I wouldn't say Platoon goes a long way toward disabusing that notion. Defoe is definitely better, but his [SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT] death scene is pretty much a parody of a war death scene, especially when viewed through a modern lens. If you didn't know, it's him with those iconic outstretched arms that adorn every piece of publicity related to Platoon. The funny thing about that death is that he reasonably would have been dead already, as he was shot -- twice, I think, and in the chest -- by Berenger's Sgt. Barnes just ten minutes earlier. And here he is running away dramatically from VC, going down a couple times before his final face plant in the mud. It's as histrionic a death as you are likely to see on film.

It's also very Christian in its obvious symbolism. Earlier in the film, someone (Barnes?) says of Defoe's Sgt. Elias, "Guy's been here three years and he thinks he's Jesus Fucking Christ." What's especially funny about that is that Defoe was actually cast as Jesus two years later in The Last Temptation of Christ. It's possible the filmmakers already knew about that casting when making Platoon. But it's clear within the context of this particular film that Defoe is supposed to be the savior taking on others' sins. He's the one always fighting to treat the Vietnamese civilians fairly rather than brutally, as seems to be the default position of his platoon mates. Those outstretched arms remind you of Jesus on the cross for a reason. Again, though, what I would see as cliche now would not necessarily have been cliche 30 years ago. So again I point to the different impact Platoon would have had on me if I'd seen it in 1986 rather than 2016.

I do feel like I should have been more emotionally invested, though, no matter when I saw it. I expected the various grunts to have more sway over my feelings, but with a very few exceptions, they did not. Charlie Sheen's Chris Taylor is a pretty unlikable protagonist, especially since his character arc is handled in a really funny way -- he loses it on a civilian in a way that makes no emotional sense given what we've seen of him so far in the movie. A descent into apparent madness is just not very believable in the hands of Charlie Sheen, who was also living down his father's similar (but much better) performance in Apocalypse Now. (It's funny, now that I think of it, that they both seem like younger actors in their respective Vietnam movies, even though Apocalypse Now was only six years earlier.) His narration also seems particularly leaden.

I did really like Keith David, as I always do. When his tour ends, I felt sure he'd step on that helicopter and it would immediately blow up, but thankfully, good old Keith gets to return home to the good old U.S. of A. I was glad for that. I guess the movie had already used up its really cliche death earlier, when an anonymous grunt shows Chris the picture of his girlfriend in his wallet, indicating beyond a shadow of a doubt that he will be dead within ten minutes of screen time.

Among the other supporting characters I was really surprised to see were Johnny Depp and Kevin Dillon, both of whom seemed like they would be too young to appear in Platoon in 1986. Depp was 22/23 during filming and Dillon 20/21 -- no wonder they both have such baby faces. I wasn't surprised to see Living Colour lead singer Corey Glover, since one of the things I'd always known about him was that he had appeared in Platoon. He does a good job -- not sure why he didn't appear in more movies, even though he was busy with the music career after that.

Platoon also allowed me to finally learn the name of that guy I always mistake for Charles Grodin: Mark Moses.

For a movie I only thought was pretty good, I do seem to be going on and on. But I'll try to wrap up now. One thing I found interesting was how much Berenger reminded me of Tom Hardy in The Revenant, both in terms of appearance and in terms of his character's function in the movie. Not only do the two sort of look alike, but they are both a "good guy" who kills someone good for selfish reasons before finally getting theirs in the end. The climate is different, but the character is the same -- and both got Oscar nominated for their efforts.

Okay, this is it! We're at the finish line. The last best picture winner I need to watch, which I'll watch in April, also has the word "last" in the title. It's Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, which won every award it was nominated for in 1987. I've always been interested in seeing this, but am even more so in the wake of having seen and loved Bertolucci's The Conformist last year.


Don Handsome said...

Corey Glover was in Platoon?? Had absolutely no idea. Now I have to rewatch...
Its OK. Saw it when I was 14 or so. It had a deep impact on me then, as you suspect it would have. So I'm not too excited to watch again. But I have to now...what's your favorite color, baby?

Derek Armstrong said...

You don't need to rewatch it just for that.