directed and written by Oliver Stone
Hemdale Film Corporation & Orion Pictures

Some opinions are communicated like a virus, and the received wisdom on Platoon is a good example of this cultural dissemination on the scale of an epidemic. It’s a movie that moviegoers have flocked to, and as for our collected punditry, bowing and scraping before Platoon‘s fashionable view of Vietnam, they have indulged in a collective rave.

Combine popular success and political correctness with this year’s trendy subject matter, and you have the cultural icon for the ’86-87 season. You need look no further than the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of weekly news journalism to see that this is so. Time, on the crest of the accolades, found in their mid-December review that “Platoon is different. It matters.” Newsweek was a little slower on the draw but managed to arrive at a remarkably similar conclusion three weeks later. Platoon, it said, was “violent” but “deeply moving”—”After nine years of waiting. Stone has made one of the rare Hollywood movies that matter.” Time went on to give the movie a cover story in late January: “Vietnam the Way It Really Was” went the headline.

But just what is it that matters so about a cheap (just $6 million) picture that nobody in Hollywood wanted to make (the financing finally came from Britain), with no big stars, and a script that rolls out every moldy cliche from the past 40 years worth of war movies? What is it?

Vietnam, 1967. That platoon of Platoon is “somewhere near the Cambodian border”—cliche number one. The new boys arrive, and soon Chris Taylor (our hero and Stone’s mouthpiece/alter ego as played by Charlie Sheen) and his new patrol are about to set out on a night march into the jungle. “Wanna see a picture of my girl?” asks the lumpy grunt Gardner, pulling out a photo of the plain but worthy Lucy Jean. Doomed by that hackneyed setup, poor old Gardner doesn’t make it through the next scene, blown away in the fighting.

And so on and so forth with old hat masquerading as Nam Like It Really Was—every cliche in the book from a man who was actually there, for yes, just like Chris Taylor, Stone dropped out of college and volunteered. The script, Stone claims, is full of men he knew and revised versions of events that happened. Like Taylor, he wasn’t in Vietnam a day before realizing he’d made a big mistake. He heard the boasts of a soldier who claimed to have brained an old woman and knew the originals for both his good Sgt. Elias and his scarred and merciless Sgt. Barnes.

But all that touted real experience, once it is run through the mill of Stone’s mind, still turned into a tiresomely typical Vietnam story: a green kid shipped in from the States finds himself in hell, among dopers and conscienceless good ol’ boys from the rural South, tries to confront an enemy he never sees (the VC) and turns instead on that “worse” enemy, the enemy within, becoming the killer he must to survive, taking the law into his own hands as he must to wreak justice. It’s all pure corn—Elias’ head looming in a wide angle shot in the drug den (in this movie the good guys smoke dope), Barnes drinking his inevitable Jack Daniels, and worst of all, Taylor’s sermonizing voice-overs.

Even Time faulted Platoon for being “overwritten,” the perfect euphemism for any work that is both trite and verbose. I couldn’t scribble fast enough to get down all the baloney. “Sometimes I just look at a guy,” says Barnes, “and I know this guy is not gonna make it.” Heard that somewhere? Or how about Bunny setting fire to a hut with his Bic and then lighting his cigarette—seen that one? But the best sanctimony got saved for the end. “We did not fight the enemy,” says Chris, being flown out of Vietnam after a hellish last night of battle with the Vietnamese. “We fought ourselves, and the enemy is us.”

He says that because the main conflict in Platoon as Stone has written it is not between the Americans and the VC but between those two sergeants. Barnes, shot seven times (mostly in the face, it seems) and not dead yet, maniacal, cruel; and Elias, in for his third tour and just as effective as Barnes against the VC, but kind to his men, mystical, and mysterious. Elias is a pot smoker to Barnes’s J.D.; he is a man who has lost faith, rather than, like Barnes, incapable of it. Barnes is there to kill; Elias is still fighting the good fight and no longer sure why.

When Barnes gratuitously kills an old woman, Elias presses charges, and after they are sent back out together on an ambush, Barnes shoots Elias and leaves him for dead. Taylor had idolized Elias and intuits that Barnes murdered his friend, and after confronting Barnes nearly gets killed by him himself But it’s the night of the final melee, and as the American camp is overrun by the Vietnamese, the commanding officer finally calls in an air strike on his own position. That blast fortuitously knocks Barnes out and aside just as Taylor is about to get his skull crushed.

Cut to the next morning, twittering birds and Taylor, bloody but alive, raising himself out of the muck. He finds a gun and then Barnes, alive as well and demanding a medic. Surrounded by bodies of Americans and VC, Taylor shoots him, killing this machine that could not die, beating Barnes at his own game.

I am the child, Taylor muses in the chopper flying out, “of those two fathers,” and they “fight for the possession of my soul.” To revenge Elias, you see, he had to fight Barnes on Barnes’s own terms, tainting himself with Barnes’s own evil.

Taylor then goes on about the “obligation to build again,” our need to find “goodness and meaning in this life,” and the movie ends with a closeup of Sheen’s profile in bright white light, an epiphany. Stone concludes by running his dedication to the men who died serving in Vietnam, in one great last presumptuous act.

Platoon is presumptuous, and it is powerful as well. Put a bunch of kids in the Philippine jungle, get a good makeup man, and blow them up realistically on film, dredge up all our harbored fear and awe of war and play on our feelings about Vietnam, and you can move an audience.

What I cannot stress enough is that there is no skill to it. It doesn’t take a genius to upset an audience. Violence does not need even a particularly good manipulator behind the lens—it is of its own self a powerful thing, and any hack in California can build a script around it. Violence is, in fact. Stone’s trademark as a scriptwriter—he also gave us that cinematic meatgrinder Scarface. But just because Stone has chosen a period most Americans feel strongly about, and worked us over with his tortured, dead, and dying, that does not make the movie anything other than an exploitation—of his moviegoer’s emotions, and especially of the Vets he presumes to portray.

Success inevitably brings a certain measure of complacency. Praise begets self-praise, and enough good reviews and a man begins to think he knows what he’s talking about. “I never was a religious person,” Stone told Time, ” —I was raised a Protestant, the great compromise—but I became religious in Vietnam. Possibly I was saved for a mission. To do some work. Write about it. Make a movie about it.” How hard it must be, when millions of people trot off to see your movie, not to believe that Heaven hadn’t spared you just for this.