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This movie won Oscars for Best Picture; Director (Oliver Stone); Editing; and Sound.

‘Platoon’ (R)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 16, 1987

"Platoon" is a triumph for Oliver Stone, a film in which a visceral approach to violence, which has always set him apart, is balanced by classical symmetries and a kind of elegiac distance. This is not the Vietnam of op-ed writers, rabble-rousers or esthetic visionaries, not Vietnam-as-metaphor or Vietnam-the-way-it-should-have-been. It is a movie about Vietnam as it was, alive with authenticity, seen through the eyes of a master filmmaker who lost his innocence there.

And in that way, "Platoon" is the first serious youth movie in ages, for at its heart, the war is treated as a rite of passage in its most intense form. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) volunteers out of idealism; the first thing he encounters, on the airport tarmac in Saigon, is a cart of body bags. It's downhill from there.

As the movie progresses, a kind of civil war develops within the platoon, between the "juicers" (who drink) and the "heads" (who smoke dope). Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) leads the juicers, who will do anything they need to survive -- some of them thrive on violence. Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) is chief of the heads, who are trying to survive with some shred of their humanity left intact. Put schematically, Barnes represents the death instinct, Elias the life instinct.

But "Platoon" is anything but schematic -- without the architecture, the emotion would overflow. The movie is beautifully written (by Stone), constructed with strong, clean lines, immaculately paced and regularly surprising. Stone uses dialogue to evoke social class and a bygone era, or to add humor -- the talk is street-smart and wittily profane. And when Stone writes a speech, he writes a speech -- he's a one-man antidote to the sterile, laconic naturalism that has dominated screen writing for years.

A platoon is, after all, a fairly large group, and the highest achievement, perhaps, of Stone's writing is the vividness with which he has drawn the supporting players, and the clarity with which he's orchestrated our sympathies toward them. That supporting cast is uneven -- in particular, John McGinley enters the realm of cartoon as Sgt. Barnes' second banana, and Kevin Dillon's sullen affectations pull you out of the movie's powerful reality. On the other hand, though, there is a staggeringly good performance by Keith David, as a vet counting the days till his discharge who befriends Chris; fine work by Francesco Quinn, as the headiest of the heads, and Mark Moses as the hapless lieutenant.

But the stars are so good, the supporting cast almost doesn't matter. Charlie Sheen, an actor with square-jawed, neighborly good looks, exerts a quiet authority at the film's center, a bright alertness -- he's not sensitive, exactly, but sensitized, drinking it all in. He anchors the more florid performances of the two sergeants warring for his soul.

And in choosing those two, Stone has brilliantly cast against type: Dafoe, who has previously played sleek villains, becomes the humanist Elias; Berenger, the amiably hunkish TV star from "The Big Chill," becomes a monster with scars crawling across his face. By turning Dafoe, a classic villain, into a saint, Stone gives you a sense of the anguish of sainthood -- you get the sense that Dafoe's Elias has battled back his own dark side.

Similarly, Berenger's Barnes seems less like a cardboard Satan than a kind of ruined man -- you see the high school football hero he once was.

In "Platoon," Stone creates a sense of brooding ominousness, an atmosphere teeming with danger; he also shows a soldier's boredom, the endless hikes and ditch-digging, without ever boring the audience. And he gets in the irritations of war, too -- "Platoon" is a marvelously tactile movie, in which you feel the heat, the rain, the bugs and snakebites. But mostly, Stone, himself a Vietnam veteran, shows you the fear and confusion of war, the sleeplessness, and the terror when you finally fall asleep and invite an ambush; the odd sort of scorekeeping after the ambush, when you count how many you "got" and discover that one of your own had his chest blown apart. "Platoon" has the most brilliantly realistic war footage of any Vietnam movie yet, startling, chaotic battles without an overlay of esthetics or ballet.

Which is not to say that "Platoon" is entirely inside the action. It may be about Chris Taylor, but the point of view belongs to someone older, who has looked back and made sense of it, sorted out the heroes and villains, learned a lesson. Scored largely (by Georges Delerue) with Samuel Barber's mournful Adagio for Strings, shot in craftsmanlike style (by Robert Richardson) on a minuscule budget, "Platoon" has the sad intimacy of an old ache. And for all its agitation, it has moments of beauty that seem to slow time.

"Platoon" has obvious flaws, particularly the hero's voice-over narration, which adds little, and pieces of acting and writing that simply go over the top. But that's the thing about Oliver Stone -- when he errs, it's always because he's gone too far, never because he hasn't gone far enough.

In the past year, with "Salvador" and "Platoon," he has gone from a screen writer who seemed to bring out the worst in the directors who hired him to one of the five or six American directors who matter. He stands almost alone on the contemporary scene -- a writer-director with a strong stylistic signature, stronger political convictions and an unplumbable heart.

"Platoon" is rated R and contains violence and profanity.

Copyright The Washington Post

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