It is 1967 and Private Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) has dropped out of college to join up with the U.S. Army and fight in the Vietnam conflict, but the minute he arrives there and sees the body bags containing dead soldiers being loaded up to take out of the country, he realises he has made a mistake that could cost him his life. He finds that once he has reached the area near the Cambodian border where he has been stationed, nobody wants to know him or any of the other new recruits because they don't feel they are worth getting to know if they are to be killed soon. In the confusion of the war, Chris is going through the worst experience of his life...
There was a tie-in computer game of Platoon back in the eighties, you know. You guided a little soldier around a jungle and shot Viet Cong, but whether you got as much out of doing that as you did watching the film was unlikely, though the game's existence serves to illustrate how the enormity of the Vietnam War had invaded the pop culture landscape during the middle of the decade. And we have Oliver Stone to thank for that, a man who had been a soldier in that conflict and had drawn on his experiences to write the script for this, originally a reaction to the super-patriotic John Wayne film The Green Berets, which he regarded as a false representation.
That should give you some idea of how long it took for the film to reach the screen, but when it did, this low budget effort went on to earn its money back many times over and hit big around the world, even eventually winning the Best Picture Oscar for its year and a Best Director award for Stone. It was seen as one of the most brutal depictions of combat ever made, and Mickey Rooney was so shocked by it that he stated that no woman should be allowed to see it, yet it did appeal to the macho fantasy of such a situation almost as much as Rambo did. It was just that the achingly sincere Platoon was not intended as comic book violence, and therefore was treated far more seriously.
Nevertheless, Stone cannot help but romanticise his subject, idealising his characters through making them take part in a gigantic battle between good and evil, all for the soul of Private Taylor. In case you haven't worked this out by the end, there's a voiceover from Sheen which helpfully points it out for you. It is interesting in its method of tackling this not by staging this antagonism between the Americans and the Vietnamese, but amongst the Americans alone, indeed, the natives are rarely seen and then either civilians to be victimised or glimpsed in the jungle, with their bullets and bombs more in evidence than they are.
The fight between good and evil is embodied in two men, Sergeant Bob Barnes (Tom Berenger), the baddie, and Sergeant Elias Grodin (Willem Dafoe), the goodie. Both actors do well in not descending into caricature, but the fact that Stone felt he had to impose a rather trite story onto his otherwise vividly rendered sense of time and place sets the film as a whole at something of a disadvantage. Sheen, while convincing as a naive and callow recruit, is not up to the scenes where he has to be aggressive and show how the war is corrupting him as he is better at depicting Chris's numb misery. Elsewhere, the support do very well no matter their siding with Barnes or Elias, with the likes of Keith David and Kevin Dillon standing out (Johnny Depp is in there, too), but you may well be wishing that Stone had opted for the documentary style to bring his tale to life. He also was repsonsible for doing to Barber's Adagio for Strings what 2001: A Space Odyssey did for Also Sprach Zarathustra, i.e. making it inescapable for a long while.
Didactic, aggressive and in-your-face American writer-director who, after directing a couple of horrors (Seizure and The Hand) and writing Midnight Express and Scarface, settled into his own brand of political state-of-the-nation films like Salvador, the Oscar-winning Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. Slightly out of character were The Doors and U-Turn: respectively, a celebration of the late sixties and a sweaty thriller. In 2004 he experienced his biggest flop with Alexander, a historical epic, but followed it with the reverent World Trade Center and a biopic of then just-leaving President George W. Bush. A belated sequel to Wall Street and gangster movie Savages were next. Say what you like, he has made his mark and loads of people have an opinion on him.