Review: Platoon (1986)

Director/Screenwriter: Oliver Stone
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon
Genres: Drama, War
MPAA Rating: Rated R for severe violence, profanity, and frightening/intense images
Release Dates: 12/19/86 (Theatres); 8/15/00 (DVD); 9/2/15 (Streaming)
Best Line: “I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was within us.”
Runtime: 2 hours
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
Oscars: Won–Picture, Director, Sound, Editing; Nominated–Supporting Actor (Berenger, Dafoe), Original Screenplay, Cinematography
Where to Watch: Netflix

My Oscar-winning films catch-up continues with 1986’s Platoon, often deemed the best anti-war film ever made. Writer/director Oliver Stone based the film on his own experiences in the Vietnam War, which makes the script and characters so viscerally real, and the events that transpire as authentic as they can possibly be. It’s not an easy watch, by any means, but that’s what makes this such an important film to watch: it’s not preachy, and gets its point across about the horrible pointlessness of the Vietnam War in a way that sticks with you. 

Stone puts the viewer amid all of the action and craziness of the war in a platoon group lead by two men with completely different personalities, played by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe in Oscar-nominated performances. It doesn’t take long before their true colors show, and we see that Berenger’s sergeant is hardened and willing to do whatever it takes to get things done his way, whereas Dafoe’s sergeant is more compassionate and realistic when it comes to getting the job done. While their spats and what everything leads to is a bit predictable, that’s okay, because it’s executed so flawlessly. Berenger and Dafoe were purposely cast against type (at the time), as Berenger was known for more protagonist/cheery-type roles, whereas Dafoe was known for playing a villain. They’re both excellent, although I’d give Dafoe the edge for his final scene alone (including the shot that is most associated with the film).

The main character here is played by a baby-faced Charlie Sheen, who serves as our entrance into the platoon and the war; he provides voice-over through the film, narrating events in a letter to his grandmother. I don’t always like voice-over, but this was done well, and gave us some insight into his character that we might not have had otherwise. Also, decades before he became a certified crazy celebrity, he showed that he possessed solid acting chops. He, Dafoe, and Berenger are assisted by young, familiar faces such as Kevin Dillon, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Mark Moses, and even Johnny Depp in a very small role. 

Platoon is often exceedingly violent and harrowing, but that is to be expected. And, the ending could hardly be considered optimistic, although there is a tinge of realistic hopefulness. It’s not the kind of movie you can watch multiple times, as even a hard-stomached individual like myself — who can eat while watching the most violent, gross things happen on a screen with no issues whatsoever — was made uncomfortable, especially during the raid on the local Vietnamese village. But, I believe it to be essential viewing, and a great way to see what the Vietnam War was really like for those who lived it. Those American soldiers who fought for us didn’t necessarily know why they were there, but they were concentrated on their jobs, even though the war took emotional and physical tolls on their selves.