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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Platoon (1986) - Violent depiction of war

The US military involvement in Vietnam was an experience that even decades later is recalled as a phase to avoid. Every military engagement by the US is vetted to see that the US should not get involved the same way that it got involved in Vietnam. The US military had a humiliating defeat when it was forced to retreat from Vietnam, and did not get its true spirit back till the defeat of Saddam Hussain in the First Gulf Way in 1991. The US dogma (including any required military effort) to beat back the ascendancy of Communism around the world is seen as the primary reason for the involvement in the Vietnam War. Given the impact of the Vietnam War on the US psyche during the 1970's and after, it was natural to expect many many movies to be made on the subject, and some great movies have been made.
Platoon (1986)
Some of the movies have been 'Good morning Vietnam', 'Apocalypse Now', 'The Deer Hunter', 'Full Metal Jacket', 'Forrest Gump', etc. A lot of these movies have been dark movies, such as 'Apocalypse Now', a very dark portrayal of the madness of war and what such a war does to the people involved. Similarly, Platoon is a dark depiction of war, of the changes wrought in the innocent young men who went to war, and whom the war turned into cynical, moody and mentally wrought people. A whole generation of young men were taken from their families, drafted into the war, and turned into hard, battle weary men. Platoon takes a glimpse of what war life must be for a few of these young men. Oliver Stone, who served as an American soldier in war, takes his experiences and creates his most famous and acclaimed movie. This is the movie that made Stone's reputation.
The movie made an equally good impression on a large section of the critics, and also got a good share of the Oscars, winning 4, and getting nominated for others.
Won: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound
Nominated: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Tom Berenger), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Willem Dafoe), Best Cinematography and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.
At the time of release, the Vietnam War had been over for more than a decade, and a new generation of Americans were not so aware of the mood of the country in the late 60's and 70's. At such a time, the release of such a movie that portrayed the war as a brutal war that sapped the human spirit, and portrayed the impact on individual members of the platoon would have been akin to a shocking reminder of what the war must have been like. In addition, the movie did not present things in stark black and white, with a large amount of moral ambiguity through the movie. Even the protagonist, a person who does not sway too much from the right side, eventually kills in cold blood, not during a conflict, and out of hate. Further, the depiction of the massacre in a village, modeled after the 'My Lai' village massacre during the Vietnam War is meant to shock.
The movie takes Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a young upper middle-class American dropping out of college to join the war because he feels that there is an unfair policy where rich kids are getting deferment to join the war because of their education, while poorer background young men are being sent to join the war. However, any romanticism of the war is soon lost in the actual combat zone, whether due to the mundaneness of digging foxholes or in an actual conflict situation (where a fellow soldier dies in the cross-fire). The movie also shows the contrasting impact of the war on people with the depiction of 2 Sergeants, Sgt. Elias and Staff Sgt. Barnes. Elias (William Dafoe in an Oscar nominated role) is a squad leader who has not been corrupted by the war and maintains his essential humanity. He almost dies a death at the hands of his own countrymen when he is shot by Barnes (Tom Berenger) in the middle of battle, eventually being killed by the Vietnamese while fleeing from them in a wounded state. Barnes himself is shot by Taylor after a major combat action in revenge for the killing of Elias. Barnes is an example of what human being can become who cracks under the pressure of war and goes to the dark side. Another major highlight of the movie is the dependence of soldiers on good leadership with the platoon having an inept leadership in the form of Lt. Wolfe (apparently Lt. Wolfe is used in US army training as an example of how not to command).

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