Oliver Stone is not known for timidity of vision, and in Platoon, the often-controversial filmmaker doesn't hold back. Having been a 21-year-old infantryman during the Vietnam War, he synthesized that life-changing experience into this 1986 masterpiece that would go on to earn Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.
Platoon is easily cinema's greatest fictional work to center on the Vietnam War (for those keeping score at home, I exclude Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket because those films, grander and more surrealistic, are less Vietnam-centric and more about War with a capital "W"), but it is much more. By concentrating on the perspective of an infantryman in Vietnam, Stone avoids the temptation to pontificate about the politics and social unrest surrounding that controversial war. Platoon tells a singular story, with Stone's onscreen doppelganger being Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), an idealistic 19 year old who has dropped out of college to enlist for action in Vietnam.
Taking place in September of 1967, Platoon follows Chris' stint with the 25th Infantry Division as Bravo Company trudges through the jungles of Vietnam. The film, with its episodic structure, expertly captures the sights, sounds and textures of war, specifically that war -- the suffocating heat, the ever-present fear, the jungle diseases, the mosquitoes, the ants, the snakes, the bursts of "friendly fire" and, most pervasively, the absence of morale.
Chris provides the Everyman viewpoint through which we experience the movie, but the story's heart and soul is embodied by its two potent platoon sergeants, the compassionate Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the hardened Barnes (Tom Berenger). While both characters can be seen to represent the conflicting social factions of America in the late Sixties, Dafoe and Berenger deliver knockout performances that rise above that of symbolism. Stone, for his part, resists easy judgments. Elias is kind, but perhaps just a bit naïve. Barnes is undoubtedly brutal, but he is also a true leader. Both men have been inalterably shaped by their tours of duty in Southeast Asia. Chris finds himself caught in the power struggle between the two. "I can't believe we're fighting each other," the young man writes to his grandmother, "when we should be fighting them."
More than most war films, Platoon starkly conveys the fog of war. The men of Bravo Company never know at what moment they might engage the enemy, or which Vietnamese is friend or foe, or even whether the mortar fire coming at them is from their own side. Ultimately, they don't know much of anything except the edict that it is better to stay alive than die. The soldiers' uneasiness is reflected in the filmmaking. While Stone's battle sequences are riveting, it is often difficult to follow the progression of actions. Chaos and confusion reign amid a seemingly endless barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and aerial bombs. The fighting is not cleanly staged or edited, but that's the point. Stone's movie seeks an impressionistic truth that slowly reveals itself through the walls of smoke, fire and dust.
"Hell is the impossibility of reason," Chris writes to his grandmother, a description that captures the man's sense of Vietnam. Nowhere is that hell more evident than the infamous scene in which the platoon enters a small village. A fellow infantryman has been brutally slain; the platoon members are full of rage and out for blood.
What follows is disturbing and provocative. It is a testament to Stone's storytelling that he can reveal the dehumanization of war and make it appear like an understandable progression into madness. The scene is based on the March, 1968, My Lai massacre in which U.S. forces killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, and yet it is difficult to watch the sequence at this moment in time without drawing parallels to the recent reports of the Haditha slayings in Iraq. There again is part of what makes this film so resonant. By focusing on the specific – Vietnam – Stone has told a story that reaches deeper and further.
While Platoon is very much a personal work for Oliver Stone, its brilliance is the result of many efforts. Robert Richardson's cinematography is superb, awash in the dense greens and blues of the jungle. Many of Platoon's nighttime scenes are illuminated only by flares, a detail that greatly enhances the film's feeling of utter authenticity.
The acting is top-notch. Several of the performers -- John C. McGinley, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Keith David, Johnny Depp -- would go on to bigger roles. The movie was a career milestone for Berenger, whom Stone cast against type as the physically and psychologically scarred Sgt. Barnes. In a film that boasts many strong performances, Berenger's portrayal lingers on the memory long after Platoon has come to a close.
With Samuel Barber's mournful "Adagio for Strings" acting as a recurring musical theme, Platoon is an often-harrowing tale that comes upon its power honestly. In the process, Stone suitably memorializes the camaraderie of the "grunts" who served in that difficult and unpopular war, all of them -- the hard-charging and the cowardly, the country hayseeds and the streetwise urbanites, those who clung onto their sanity through drug use and those who lost their souls amid the maelstrom of battle. To put it another way, the movie remains as phenomenal as it was upon its initial release.
The two-disc anniversary edition is housed in a slim keepcase that includes a second tray for the additional disc. The case, in a plastic slipcover, also boasts a handsomely presented six-page insert of Platoon-related articles and color photos.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer beautifully captures Richardson's vivid cinematography. Aside from the rare speck of grain or insignificant flash, I could not discern any significant flaws in image quality. The colors are rich, the blacks inky. Platoon has many scenes of visual power that are well-preserved in this DVD.
Viewers can select Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS, both of which are clean, sharp and provide dramatic use of immersive sound. From rainstorms to explosions, the audio is fine and involving. Hell, you might even catch yourself checking if helicopters are buzzing overhead.
Audio and subtitles are also available in French and Spanish.
The 20th anniversary edition includes previously released bonuses as well as several worthwhile new features. For those who might have earlier DVDs of Platoon, this first-rate upgrade is definitely worth it.
Oliver Stone's commentary track is informative and expansive, although his monologue doesn't seem to have the enthusiasm of other commentaries he has cut for other films of his (JFK and even the quasi-lecture Alexander come to mind). It is particularly illuminating to discover just how autobiographical Platoon truly is; many of its scenes correspond to Stone's own wartime adventures, such as the sequence in which Chris falls asleep while on lookout and inadvertently allows an ambush by VC forces. And, like the fictitious Chris Taylor, Stone routinely wrote his grandmother from when he was serving with the 25th Infantry.
A second commentary is courtesy retired Marine Capt. Dale Dye, who was Platoon's military technical advisor. A 22-year military veteran, Dye served several tours of duty in Vietnam and has much to offer viewers who might have a limited knowledge of that conflict. His commentary is insightful and engaging throughout.
Nine deleted and extended scenes include optional commentary by Stone. They are of nominal interest (a dream sequence, an extended scene of Chris' first time smoking pot, etc.) but unnecessary -- with one exception. Evidently, the director shot an alternate take of a key confrontation between Chris and Barnes. Stone says that, in retrospect, he put the wrong take in the movie.
Three documentaries are certain to enhance viewers' appreciation of Platoon. First is One War, Many Stories, which evolves from a simple set-up. Shot in 2005, a cross-section of Vietnam veterans share their recollections of the war after screening Platoon. This engrossing 25-minute piece is a fascinating window into the lives of men still nursing the psychological wounds of that war many years later.
A Tour of the Inferno: Revisiting Platoon -- which appeared on a previous DVD release of Platoon -- is a masterful 52-minute documentary chronicling the making of the film, all the way from casting to post-production. Chock full of behind-the-scenes footage and candid interviews, the documentary is particularly interesting for what it reveals about Platoon's pre-production. Before the cameras started to roll on location in the Philippines, Stone subjected his young cast to two weeks of intensive infantry training under the tutelage of Capt. Dale Dye. By all accounts, it was grueling work, a sort of mini-boot camp -- Stone dubs it "method directing" -- but the actors uniformly credit the experience with lending authenticity to their onscreen performances.
Less interesting, but still watchable, is Preparing for the 'Nam. The eight-minute, 30-second piece deals with the actual boot camp experience that Vietnam's soldiers endured before going overseas.
Flashback to Platoon groups together three fine mini-documentaries. First up is Snapshot in Time 1967-1968, an excellent piece that concisely examines the years during which the movie takes place. Using news footage and interviews with historians and other observers of the Sixties, the 19-minute featurette details the TET offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and how the Vietnam quagmire kept President Lyndon Johnson from seeking reelection.
Creating the 'Nam is a making-of featurette that revisits how Stone shot Platoon over two months in the Philippines. Running for only 12 minutes, the video manages to pack in some interesting anecdotes about the director's manic and manipulative work style. "He's a bit of a button-pusher, but he knows that," Charlie Sheen says in an interview. Other candid interviewees include film editor Claire Simpson and producer Arnold Kopelson.
Vietnam veterans reacted strongly to Platoon, reactions that are detailed in Raw Wounds: The Legacy of Platoon. As the 17-minute featurette discusses, Platoon elicited a myriad of opinions, from vets who found it therapeutic to others who complained that Stone had painted GIs in a negative light. Perhaps the most sanguine comment comes from Dale Dye, who notes that there can never be a single movie to fully encapsulate the Vietnam experience because every veteran emerged from that war with a unique story to tell.
There are two photo galleries – behind-the-scenes and a poster gallery. The DVD includes three TV spots as well as a theatrical trailer. Previews include: The James Bond Ultimate Collection, The Great Escape, Windtalkers (Director's Edition), The Best of World War II Movies, The Patriot (Extended Cut), Raging Bull (Collector's Edition) and Black Hawk Down (Extended Cut) .
The third time this extraordinary film has been brought to DVD, Platoon finally gets the stellar treatment it deserves. Brilliantly directed, beautifully acted, thought-provoking and poignant, and with a slew of extras that actually enhance viewers' appreciation of a modern-day classic film. For all that, Platoon's 20th anniversary edition warrants the DVD Talk Collector Series.