The Vietnam War

Platoon

Year: 1986
Directed By: Oliver Stone
Written By: Oliver Stone

RYAN’S REVIEW

Back in 2003 I was 19 years old, in college, and aggressively involved in the world on a larger scale for the first time. At that young adolescent age my mind was exploding and I was hungry for all the knowledge in the world. For the first time I had stepped out of the world of Ryan (high school years) and started paying attention to the world around me. I was heavily invested in the Iraq War, both politically and emotionally. I was inspired and full of ideas in a way that only the young can be. I’ll never forget the feeling of despair I had when I sat in front of the TV and watched as the Iraq War officially began. I remember that once it had ultimately started I went to my tiny movie collection and put in this movie. I no longer wanted to see the reality of what must be taking place on the other side of the world. Instead I chose to watch the only thing I had that remotely related to the conflict, which was this movie.

Now there are several similarities between the Vietnam and Iraq wars but that had nothing to do with why I watched this film that night. I not only watched this film that night but I watched it every night after for probably as long as two months. This movie drew me in, it taught me something. It was real and a representation of the consequence of such actions. I watched it so much I knew every character in the film and when their character perished. This movie was made by a man who knew, a man who gave up his cushy life to fight alongside the common man who had no choice. This movie was based on the real life experiences of the man who made it, a man who lived through war. That meant something to me as my country entered another war that would undoubtedly lead to dire consequences for so many.

This is the movie that helped me understand war. The movie that taught me that war is more than action and wrong on several levels. There is “the way of war” and it’s an awful thing. No matter the circumstances that bring it about, when war becomes an option it is the innocent that suffer. In the way of war people are fighting for their lives. You have two sides pushed to the extreme and you have people caught in the middle. Who is to blame when horrible and awful things happen? The circumstances are a recipe for mayhem. When war is established life becomes dog eat dog for the people involved. It sucks but that is “the way of war.” Once the point of no return has been crossed the consequences that follow are inevitable.  Wars are fought by the young, especially this war because most of the men serving were drafted. Teenage boys carrying guns through the jungle can’t be held accountable for when they snap under the pressure. The people caught in the middle can’t be to blame because they are just trying to stay alive. There are so many unfortunate circumstances created by war. These things can never be lost on the men making the decision to go to war. People are going to suffer when war becomes necessary, it has to be for good reason or else it is just wrong and there is no justice to it at all.

When I was 19 years old I thought Oliver Stone was a God. Not literally of course but I thought he was head and shoulders above other filmmakers. He was the number one director in my mind and I felt his career was one of the greatest. Those illusions came crashing down a year later when the much anticipated, to me at least, Alexander came out. I had eagerly awaited that movie only for it to claim the highest echelon in the ranking of movies that crushed my soul. That is neither here nor there though as a year prior when I was watching this movie night after night I still had all my hopes and dreams for films invested in this man. Oliver Stone was Private Taylor from this film played by Charlie Sheen. Stone had dropped out of Yale to fight in Vietnam, something admirable that I respected then and still do today. Oliver Stone may be a bit of a conspiracy nut and like all conspiracy nuts he will bend the truth to serve his own purposes but there is still plenty the man deserves our respect for.

I had become infatuated with Stone for the wrong reasons prior to 2003. Like most young adolescent boys I was rebellious and as a movie fan I was drawn to the films that inspired my wild and immature inclinations. I liked to walk the fine line between good and bad and experimented with an aggressiveness that was encouraged by the movies I loved. Stone came into the picture with films like The DoorsAny Given Sundayand of course Natural Born KillersThese movies fueled my endeavors into rebellion, drug use, promiscuity, and profanity. There were several films and filmmakers that had this affect on me but it was Stone I stayed with as I matured from a boy into a young adult. With films like Platoon, Wall Street, Nixonand JFK Oliver Stone inspired me in new ways that molded my personality during the developmental years that continue in college. I have since grown out of the stage I was in when these films inspired me and I no longer see Stone in the same light I did back then. Nevertheless I still hold most of his films in high regard and I will always respect the man. A man that lived the life he does and did the things he has done deserves respect. I know better as an adult than to take everything he made at face value but there are still plenty of things I took away from his films and I appreciate the lessons that they taught me.

I have always found the Vietnam War to be fascinating and prefer the war movies from that era as opposed to the ones from before. There are different themes from those differing generations that I think are important. WWII left Americans with the impression that they were the greatest country in the world and could do no wrong. Many WWII movies I find enhance this theme. As a young man I whole heartedly believed in these all-American ideas as well but when I grew up I felt differently. Vietnam was like a slap in the face to Americans because it reminded them that not only were they not the unbeatable super power who could do anything but they were not even the good guys in some circumstances. Vietnam happened during a time when the children of the Baby Boomers were coming of age and they had different ideas about the state of the union.  The things happening in Southeast Asia were being broadcast on television every evening for the first time and the news was rarely good. It left an impact on the younger generations not only because it was in their face but because many of them were being recruited to fight in the conflict. Vietnam was going on during a cultural change in America. It was not a time where the country united to protect the world for the greater good like in WWII, but a time when the country was bleeding at home and divisions among the public were fueled by the conflict at hand. I feel like WWII films tend to represent the propaganda age of America while Vietnam films represent the realism that the country had to face. Vietnam films usually focus on the reality of war, the consequences that it creates, and the truth that we all need to understand as a people.

This movie taught me many of those truths, and I took them more seriously because the man teaching was one who knew. He was there and had firsthand experience in what he was trying to explain. I still find this film just as inspiring as I did when I was watching it for the first time and I still find lessons in it that we can all learn from. I am no longer the diehard Oliver Stone fan I was in my youth but that is by and large due to growing up. As an adult I am not as infatuated with the stoned and suspicious mind of Oliver Stone. The man’s work is on screen and he made some incredible things, but in the grand scheme of things they spoke to a younger version of myself that went into hibernation years ago before my kids were born. There is often a fine line between brilliance and insanity and Stone danced that line till he fell over into the insane side a long time ago. I am no longer the young and impressionable adolescent who believed in such grand ideas as the JFK conspiracy and believed that with a strong enough voice things in the world would change for the better. The world is what it is; you can only accept it at face value and keep moving forward. Delving into the larger scheme of things is only going to bring you disappointment and amount to wasted time.

There is something from this movie that I always used as an example to suggest Stone’s abilities and it had nothing to do with his take on the war. In this movie Oliver Stone got an impressive performance from Charlie Sheen in the role of Private Taylor, and again a year later in Wall Street. Charlie Sheen is an incredibly interesting person, but that aside, he has never been a particularly good actor. In the years before all his crazy antics in the press I used to wonder how it was that this man was such a celebrity and made such a good living at it. There were so few performances aside from the two already mentioned that I thought were worth anything. Point being, he was not a very good actor. However, I have always believed that a bad actor can be made great in a film by the right director. Hence the impression of Stone I had grew because of the performance he was able to get out of Sheen. In contrast I felt that in 2004 the opposite was true. Despite all the time he had invested in the film Stone made a horrible movie with his Alexander and specifically got an awful performance out of another bad actor, Colin FarrellAlexander, as far as I am concerned, was the end of Oliver Stone’s career for me as a fan because it signified a decline in skill. A couple years prior to Alexander one of the greatest directors ever, Steven Spielberg, had gotten a good performance out of Farrell in Minority Report. If Spielberg could do something that Oliver Stone could not it suggested to me that Stone had lost something, and I still feel like that holds true because in the last 10 years nothing he has done has impressed me as it did prior to Alexander.

Beyond Charlie Sheen this movie offers a very rich cast of actors. Tom Berenger gave one of the best performances on his career playing Sgt. Barnes. The role of Barnes was initially meant for Kevin Costner, who I think could have pulled it off well but Berenger made it his own. Willem Dafoe gave an equally good performance as Sgt. Elias. Dafoe is such an interesting actor and continues even until today to show a range and diversity as an actor that is impressive. Stone intentionally cast Berenger and Dafoe in roles contrasting what the public was used to seeing them play. Berenger, who usually played good guys, was cast as the ruthless and cruel Sgt. Barnes while Dafoe, who usually played villains, was cast as the crusader Elias. An interesting idea that worked well and brought more diversity to the careers of both men.

In the roles of other Sergeants were long time Stone collaborator John C. McGinley and the scariest man ever, Tony Todd. McGinley never reached that upper echelon of stardom but he played so many terrific parts over the years. Tony Todd plays a small part in this movie but his presence in anything should never go unnoticed because when you fail to notice Candyman he comes up behind you with a hook and kills you. Johnny Depp played the translator Lerner in one of his first roles ever. Stone reportedly met with him during casting and immediately predicted his future fame. In fact he considered casting Depp in the lead role of Taylor but didn’t because Depp was so young and unknown at the time. Keith David plays one of the biggest parts of any of the grunts in King. I am a big fan of Keith David and like just about everything he has ever done. Also as another grunt was future Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker whose part was small but shouldn’t go unnoticed.  Kevin Dillon played Bunny, the sadistic grunt who by the end nobody knows what to make of. Dillon probably had high hopes for his career in 1986 but he turned out to be the less famous brother of his not so famous older brother Matt Dillon.

The making of this movie was quite an incredible thing that went a long way with how the final product came out. As a veteran Stone didn’t just cast actors and put them in the jungle. He went farther and put them through an actual boot camp in the Philippines that ended the day before shooting. He didn’t want them to have any down time after the camp because he didn’t want them getting soft again before shooting the movie. It was a rigorous shoot that had some actors feeling like they had actually been in the war by the time they got home. Charlie Sheen reportedly kissed the ground upon his return to the States. These guys went into the jungle and did it the hard way; the way it should have been done to get it right. Even the fun stuff during this shoot was hard on the actors. In the scene where King takes Taylor to “meet the heads” the actors had been actually getting high all day on potent Filipino weed. By the time they actually shot the scene they were all stoned out of their minds and some were even feeling sick. An interesting story that I’ve always figured had to play into the long term drug use of the young Johnny Depp and Charlie Sheen. I don’t know but if I had to guess I’d wager Oliver Stone was the guy who introduced Charlie Sheen to his favorite drug of choice, cocaine. I imagine the Filipino weed was merely a stepping stone for Sheen as he moved onto coke and ultimately…tiger blood.

This movie is important to me because it taught me something that I will never forget. However this movie is important for many more reasons because it was a great movie and it accomplished what it intended to. The screenplay for this movie was written back in the 70s when Stone returned to America and didn’t appreciate how the war was depicted in John Wayne’s The Green BeretsIn that sense it succeeded in depicting a more realistic view of what the war was actually like. It wasn’t alone in trying to send that message as a few films about Vietnam came out around the same time. Most notably, Full Metal Jacket came out the following year. Both are great movies but they should not be compared because they are so different. Platoon was a film about the Grunts while Full Metal Jacket was a film about the Jarheads. The significant difference there was that men were drafted into the army while the marines are a branch made up of volunteers. That makes all the difference as one film is about men who chose to serve while the other is primarily about men who had no choice in the matter.

The Vietnam War was a fascinating chapter in American history and a true example of how history is never used enough going forward. Had the powers that be reflected on history during the development of the conflict in Vietnam the whole thing may have never happened. On the flip side, had the lessons from that conflict specifically been learned the US may not have entered another long war to force democracy down the throats of people who had no interest in it. It is difficult to fight a war on the other side of the world for reasons that mean little to the inhabitants. Guerrilla warfare is hard to combat, the British learned that over 200 years ago but somehow the lesson seems lost on the US. When the enemy can be anybody and can come from anywhere bad things will happen all around to everyone involved. The soldiers fighting under the pressures of their lives being on the line can’t be held accountable for the things that happen nor can the inhabitants who at some point may just get fed up and take up arms against the foreign soldiers in their country. It is the “way of war” and war never goes well. It’s not an action movie and it’s not a video game. When it happens people are going to suffer and someone’s hands are going to get dirty.

Movies are made to entertain but they are so much better when they can actually teach us something at the same time. This movie can do that and I appreciate it more for that very reason. This is a great film and it doesn’t need my stamp of approval on it because it has plenty already. If you haven’t seen this movie then you are missing out. If you don’t know the incredible history of the Vietnam War you are missing out, but you’d need a lot more than a movie to learn about that. As time moves forward things get lost behind us but it is important to never forget the lessons the past has to offer. This movie, for me at least, represents such a lesson and that makes it worth everybody’s time. This is an awesome movie and I think everybody should see it.

NEXT MOVIE: Pleasantville (1998)

Full Metal Jacket

Year: 1987
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Written By: Gustov Hasford (novel) Stanley Kubrick, Gustov Hasford, and Michael Herr (screenplay)

RYAN’S REVIEW

I think this is a perfect movie. It is Stanley Kubrick‘s masterpiece. There are many movies that I love and many that I will say are great but there aren’t many I ever call perfect. This is one of the ones I do though; it is an incredible film on a level above all others I describe that way. This movie means something where so many mean nothing. It has a purpose that transcends everything that most movies are made for. This movie will be forever remembered and loved because it is special, because Stanley Kubrick is an amazing filmmaker and because it tells a different story about the war.

Admittedly this is a movie I never understood until I actually understood The Vietnam War. I studied history in college and took an entire class specifically about the war. It was after that class that I revisited this film and recognized how great it really was. Before that I remembered always giving up during the half way point where the story goes from boot camp to Vietnam and the story seems to change so dramatically. The film almost feels like a comedy for the first half during the boot camp section but once it moves overseas it moves like the experience of those men. It changed dramatically, it became real, and it became something those of us that weren’t there could never understand. The first time I saw this movie I knew nothing about the Tet Offensive, or anything at all about the Vietnam War for that matter. I would imagine that everything after the boot camp half of the movie must be confusing to a viewer who doesn’t know anything about the Tet Offensive. For those that don’t know, the Tet Offensive was a major coordinated offensive counter strike from the Vietcong on a major Vietnam holiday during the war in 1968. At the time Americans were under the impression we were winning the war, but suddenly there was a major nationwide attack that changed everything. This movie eventually settles around that event and it is important to understand what actually happened when watching this film. The Tet Offensive occurred in 1968 during the Tet holiday in Vietnam in which no fighting was supposed to be done. It was a serious coordinated offensive attack all over North and South Vietnam that caught US and South Vietnamese forces by surprise and hit hard. It happened during a time the war was still developing for people back home in the US and many people were under the impression the Vietcong was nothing to worry about and we were beating them. The Tet Offensive proved not only that we weren’t easily defeating the Vietcong but that they were in fact a serious opponent as well. It then went on to take the war to the next step that would go on for another four years or so. The Tet Offensive was a significant event in The Vietnam War and I would suggest that anybody interested do further research about it because I am just getting this information from memory. The Vietnam War overall has a really fascinating history that everybody can learn from, I would suggest anybody and everybody to read about that war.

From the very beginning of this film you can see how great it is. I love the opening with all the recruits having their hair shaved off. They all have such different kinds of hair and hairstyles and they all begin to look so similar without them. It suggests the loss of identity, they are in the first stage of being stripped of who they are and molded into something different. The Marines are masters at making men into machines and this movie gives us a window into what it was like during the 60s. The fact that they are Marines at all makes this a different Vietnam film and that was something else I never understood when I was younger. Men were drafted into the Army prior to and during the Vietnam War, but not the Marines. The men we see in this film weren’t drafted, they volunteered to go, and it was their decision. That changes everything about this movie and their war experience in general. I think the strangest thing is that a guy like Private Pile was even able to get in, but there are probably men finding they aren’t cut out for what they decided to do every day in the Marines.

Private Pile’s role in the movie is very interesting and the part is played well by Vincent D’Onofrio. His character’s inability to get with the program is something that happens all of the time and this movie offers a great opportunity to see an example of it. The marines are tough, you get that seeing this movie if you don’t already know it, and some men just aren’t cut out for it. Private Pile obviously didn’t have what it took but the Marines don’t accept failure as an option. His drill instructor only got harder and harder on him until those efforts proved fruitless and then he made the whole squad suffer in his place. That led to the hazing that we see with the soap wrapped in towels. I think that scene is incredible because you can see that Joker knows he shouldn’t join in, but his own frustrations with Pile overcome him and he ultimately gives Pile the worst beating of anybody. When Pile actually goes crazy it’s clear that it was only a matter of time and it turns into such a dramatic and hard hitting scene.

A major part of what made the first half of the film so great was the performance of R. Lee Ermey. He brought his own personal experience to the role and made it so much more real for the viewer. Ermey spent over a decade as part of the Marines and rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant. He actually served for over a year in Vietnam during his service so I’m sure he his opinion had a lot of weight during filming. Although there is no telling how suggestions were taken on a Stanley Kubrick set. Ermey’s role was so incredible that his career ballooned afterwards and he is still popular today. He is an interesting and enigmatic actor who I have always liked; he has such a unique and intimidating voice. He is perfect for so many roles.

Once the story goes into Vietnam we see such a different film because it is such a different world over there.  The men over there are all half mad, and the ones that aren’t half mad are totally bat shit crazy.  These were young men that went overseas to fight that war and they went into quite a mess.  They entered a world full of death and uncertainty.  Eventually they begin to question what they are even doing there because they don’t know anymore. They are told they are there to help the South Vietnamese gain their freedom from the Communist but more often than not they find themselves fighting the men that they are supposed to be there to help.  This was a common problem in Vietnam because the South Vietnamese troops were just as likely to turn around and fight the Americans as they were to fight the enemy.  This makes the whole purpose of the war confusing to the soldiers in the field and eventually they all have to question why they are there.  The one thing that they all do know for certain is that they are there to kill, and that is what they do, but it makes them crazier and crazier as time passes. With the individual interviews you see being recorded in the film you get a wide range of opinions about the war from the people involved.  It’s also really interesting to see how the craziest ones (Animal Mother) can put on a nice face for the cameras.

The individual interviews were a really incredible part of the movie because they are so informative but they can also be confusing to people who know little about the war.  Vietnam was, at the root, more of a political war than anything else and it is just an unfortunate reality that many many people suffered because of it.  The Vietnam War was fought to combat the growth of Communism in the East.  There was The Domino Theory that suggested if one country fell to Communism they all would and it became the position of the United States to not allow the Communist to gain ground in South East Asia.  This led to the creation of the South Vietnam democracy by the US government and that was who we allied with during The Vietnam War. The truth of it all is that the nation of South Vietnam never really existed; it was just set up by the US government to give us somebody to fight for. We would get natives from South Vietnam, train them to fight, and then put them in the field and back them up. Those people didn’t care whether or not they had freedom though. The whole thing was ridiculous and in reality the whole war was just a big mistake that went too far and many different men continued making more mistakes and took things farther.  It wasn’t a winnable war because there was no side that could win.  We couldn’t win because we were just helping, but the country we were helping didn’t really exist.  You can’t force freedom down the throats of people who just want foreign people to leave so they can go home to their farms and villages to live life as they always had.  The South Vietnamese soldiers in the field would more often than not turn and fight the Americans because their hearts weren’t in it for freedom.  Democracy made no difference to them and they weren’t going to die for it.  In a nutshell this is why the war was so ridiculous, and it accomplished nothing but death and destruction for both sides.

This movie makes several strong statements about the war but they are wasted on people who don’t understand the conflict. For those of us that do understand, this movie is more than moving and it can teach us plenty about the war.  The Vietnam War is one of the most interesting conflicts I have ever studied and I would encourage anybody interested in history to learn as much as you can about it.  It was an awful situation, as all wars are, but there wasn’t much glory in this war as there was in the ones that came before it i.e. WWI or WWII.  This movie shows us the effects the war had on the soldiers and on the country of Vietnam as well.  It says a lot about guerrilla warfare and how unfair it all is.  In the end the squad loses several important characters and risk quite a bit to resolve the situation.  All of them end up at the mercy of one single person and it turns out to be a girl that was doing all the killing.  That says a lot about the war right there.  They never knew who the enemy was, where they were, or how many of them might be waiting to attack.  These men had it hard, and their lives were on the line.  It’s unfair to make assumptions about them or pass judgment on the things that they did because we weren’t there and we don’t know.  They were dying for people who might very well turn around and shoot them while they were focused on the enemy.  Every day was a struggle just to survive and danger was around every corner.  That situation would wreak havoc on the minds of any of us, and we can’t hope to understand what it was like for those that were involved.

I might not have said this before watching the movie again for this review but I now feel that this is without doubt Stanley Kubrick’s finest work.  That is only my opinion but I consider it a perfect film and it is now my favorite of all his movies.  It didn’t win any awards, but Platoon may have stolen all the Vietnam thunder at the Oscars the year before.  Kubrick was a perfectionist and people had difficulty working with him because of that but his efforts paid off in spades with this movie.  Matthew Modine also did a great job in the lead role.  I think this kind of role should have propelled him on to the next level of stardom but it didn’t.  He has remained in the background of movies for a long time but he has never really become that headline actor I think he had the potential to be. This summer we will be able to see him in the background of another film but this time a big time movie.  Modine will be playing a small role in this summer’s The Dark Knight Riseswhich I think many of us are looking forward to.

I think I have sufficiently gone on forever about this movie but there is plenty I haven’t even mentioned.  Among the many things I haven’t mentioned is the soundtrack.  The music in this movie is excellent and does a great job of setting the tone for the film all around.  This is a graphic movie but a movie about The Vietnam War that isn’t graphic is a waste of your time.  It was a graphic conflict; there is no point to sugarcoating it. Bad things happened on all levels and as a nation I think we learned a lot from the conflict.  For example I think soldiers are treated differently today specifically because of that war.  There are also many ways in which we didn’t learn from the war as we entered such a strikingly similar conflict in Iraq.  I will side step the tangent that will lead me down though.  I think this is a perfect movie and I have LOVED watching it again.  I actually lost a fight with Amber about watching it a second time to write an even longer and better review. This movie isn’t one that she can appreciate so she won’t be adding in her own review.  Don’t let that discourage you though; this movie is worth your time.  If you don’t understand this movie then I suggest you educate yourself and watch it again.  This is a great movie and I would recommend it to anyone.

NEXT MOVIE: Galaxy Quest (1999)