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Since the Hollywood landscape was so different by the time the Vietnam War ended in 1975 than it was when World War II ended, it didn't take long for the young generation that was so affected by the war to create their own epics. Just three years after it ended, Michael Cimino was given millions of dollars to produce The Deer Hunter and a year after that came out, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now was finally released. Both films were widely acclaimed, with The Deer Hunter winning the Best Picture Oscar and Apocalypse Now claiming the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. After those two however, there was a long break without major Vietnam films, since many believed that Coppola's and Cimino's films said everything that needed to be said. Screenwriter Oliver Stone disagreed. Stone is a veteran of the war and had plans to make his own movie about it, but the idea was shelved until he had some experience under his belt. He wrote some fantastic scripts, particularly Midnight Express and Scarface and directed a couple of films before he finally got to make his 1986 masterpiece, Platoon.
The film takes place during one of the most important years of the war: 1967. It is told form the point of view of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a young college dropout. He is assigned to Bravo Company, which is stationed close to the Cambodian border. Quickly, he learns of the dynamics of the group, led by Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe). Barnes is a ruthless soldier, killing whoever stands in his way, even if they are civilians. Elias is more experienced, having been in Vietnam for years and tries to bring some sanity to the situation. But Stone is dead set on showing how much of an insane asylum these soldiers have found themselves in and there is no room for sanity here.
Platoon is unique in that it really is just a snapshot of one particular scene in the war. These soldiers are not after some particular goal, they are group of anonymous soldiers going on patrol and trying to hold on to a defensive position. Just like the real war itself, there seems to be no real end. They hold their position and some get to leave Vietnam, some get to move to another position and some stay in the same spot. Stone's Oscar-nominated script perfectly gives us a sense of doom for the film's entire duration, providing us with very little reason to feel that there could be a positive ending. It gives the audience just a taste of what happens to these young men in war.
If there is one aspect of Platoon that seems to get lost in the music, the cinematography and the fantastic script, it is the acting. By the film's very nature, there are no real leading men in the film. Sure, the film is told through Charlie Sheen's eyes, but this is an ensemble piece. Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Mark Moses and every other actor in this film pull off fantastic supporting performances, making each scene they star in memorable. Dafoe impresses me the most, as the complicated Elias who tries to inject some sense of sanity into the situation, particularly when he tries to hold Berenger back from needlessly murdering civilians. Both of them definitely earned their Best Supporting Actor Oscar nods.
Platoon remains among the best films on Vietnam, on the shelf right next to Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (which had the bad fortune of coming out the same year as Platoon). Knowing that Stone actually fought in the war only adds to the feeling that this is a personal film that somehow tells the universal story of how war twists the human psyche, especially one in which your purpose is never clear.
The film earned four Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Film Editing and Sound. It was nominated for four more, including Best Supporting Actor (Dafoe and Berenger), Cinematography and Original Screenplay.
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