FF30 - Platoon

This episode was guested by Chuck Bryant and was also released as a cross-over on the Movie Crush podcast.

Intro by John Roderick

When Platoon hit theaters in 1986, it had only been 13 years since the last American troops left Vietnam. Per context: That's like 2005 ago, or for further context: About how long ago I released my last album. In that 13 years there had been very little of what we might call healthy processing of the Vietnam War. Many many people insisted the US had won the war, beaten the North Vietnamese in combat and left victorious.

The fact that communist North Vietnam won was a weird fluke, a technicality. Also: If we did, I guess, not win, it's only because Eugene McCarthy and that damn turncoat Walter Cronkite back home didn't let us win, or whatever. The narrative was garbled because the experience was the very definition of a clusterfuck. We never should've been there!

The whole premise of the war was based on a theory of a domino effect: When one small country chooses a communist government over a blessed and virtuous one run by the United Fruit Company, then another follows and pretty soon the whole world becomes communist. Where will our fruit come from? So we had to fight every little whack-a-mole conflict in the world for 50 years because: What about domino effect?

But domino effect is the exact same theory as gateway drug: It's just another dumb political theory that has no real basis in fact, that history ultimately proves incorrect after the expenditure of uncountable lives and treasure. Like: Bringing democracy to the Middle East, or famously: Marxism. Remember that as you caress your favorite theory of history and think of all the things that would be immediately better as soon as one or two little of your policies were implemented.

Anyway: We lost the war, but in 1986 we still didn't want to hear it. Veterans of the conflict were in their mid-30s at the time. All those stories of soldiers being spit upon and called baby killers were mostly fictional. Returning GIs didn't get big parades either. It's hard to picture now, but the sign of contemporary American culture that posits itself as resolutely pro-military and pro-veterans and pro-USA didn't really exist then.

World War II and Korean War veterans often rejected Vietnam vets and the warmonger class in Washington sort of shoved their hands in their pockets and averted their gaze and went back to their real game of cat and mouse with the Soviets. The widespread pro-military back-to-basics gun-Bible flag-culture actually partly developed as a 1990s reaction to the sense of shame we felt had how we treated the Vietnam vets.

Despite the revisionism that painted all antiwar protesters as liberals, there was no clear polarity like there is today. Remember: This was a Democrat war started by Kennedy and escalated by Johnson and their roundtables of Harvard nights. Vietnam is one reason I can never believe in any of those global conspiracy theories where a small panel of ruthless and powerful men pull the strings of the world. You look at everyone involved here and they were really trying to win this thing, this simple little foray into a sliver of a country no one had heard of, and they couldn't, not with all the money in the world!

Well, meanwhile Oliver Stone was a troubled rich kid with a little Messiah Complex who dropped out of Yale twice before enlisting in the Army in 1968, refusing officer candidate school and requesting combat duty in Vietnam. He was doing his Rambo romantic right of passage thing, but fighting in the war was a much heavier trip than he expected. He was wounded twice and he never sought easier duty. He was bonafide! So: Platoon is semi-autobiographical.

We're embedded with soldiers as they slug it out on Long Range Patrol. Sleep deprived, sweating, covered with ants and leeches and strung out on drugs. The combat scenes have a chaotic frisson, an envelopment so different from the hyper- blurry upclose CGI fight scenes of today. Watching the film, you feel the fear in your gut. You feel alone! Surrounded by tough men who don't care about you and an unknowable enemy fighting on home turf who care about you even less.

You hate the hapless young white-ass lieutenant and his older more experienced sergeants surrounding him. But they're all you've got! Charlie Sheen, fresh off playing the same exact role in Ferris Bueller's Day Off opposite the ambrosial pre-nose-job Jennifer Grey who plays the unnamed protagonist, the rare private who chose to go. He intuitively sides with William Defoe's Sergeant Elias over Tom Berenger as Staff Sergeant Barnes and Elias sees something of himself in Sheen.

Elias is our proxy for the liberal intellectual, a philosopher soldier with a high mindedness, gradually dashed by the futility of war. Barnes is our libertarian conservative: Tough, methodical and willing to do whatever it takes to win and to protect his men from harm. The two clash over the revenge-burning of a rural village, a mildly violent spasm that Stone claims he witnessed in real life. It is still one of the most intense scenes in cinema, an unflinching depiction of the fall of man, the war in a nutshell. You can't watch it without asking: What kind of person am I? How would I have behaved?

The film doesn't stay neutral. It picks a side, but we are not allowed to sit high and mighty! We all get dirty! And from that moment on, Elias and Barnes are at war and Barnes frags Elias at his earliest convenience, leading to that iconic shot of William Defoe, disarmed and bloody, sprinting in slow-mo to the LZ just as the Hughies take off, arms raised in a Jesus Christ pose to ask everyone: Barnes, the USA, Charlie Sheen and God: "Why hast thou forsaken me?"

The answer is of course: "Because you are a hippie, Elias! You never should have smiled at Barnes, dumb stoner!" Anyway: In the last big combat setpiece, Sheen finally comes into his own as a soldier as the entire firebase is surrounded and overrun by Vietcong. The captain, memorably portrayed by Dale Dye, gives the order to expend all remaining ordnance within the perimeter and as the airplanes streak across the sky, Sheen is attacked by Barnes under cover of the battle, only to be saved by a Barnes singeing wave of napalm.

The next morning he murders Barnes with a found AK 47 before being rescued by the mop-up crew. It's the final revenge killing, the death of Barnes, the Schadenfreude we dare and hoped for. Yet, with the death of Barnes we also know that the war is lost.

This film was a big Oscar winning star-making hit, the first Vietnam film directed by a Vietnam vet. It's an intense meditation on war and on Vietnam. It came at a moment in American history where the story of Vietnam was being rewritten by Stallone and Chuck Norris, and it offered a clear-eyed rebuke to that revisionism. But despite what we know subsequently about Oliver Stone's politics and tendency to be heavy-handed, there are no clear answers in Platoon. You can't help but look for yourself in it. It's a lovely fucking war! Bravo Six out! Today on a special Friendly Fire/Movie Crush crossover episode: Platoon.

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