Ranking: #100/111

Director: Oliver Stone (USA)

Genre: War Drama

This is perhaps the most visceral, incisive and insightful depiction of the Vietnam war in cinema. Written and directed by Olive Stone, it’s a semi-autobiographical story about the fate of Bravo Company 25th Infantry who are stationed near the Cambodian border in 1967. During their patrols into the hot, inhospitable jungle, the highly mobile camera is a participant in the action, as if Stone wanted it to be a member of the platoon, like a war correspondent accompanying the soldiers into battle. The result is that scenes during patrols have great immediacy, bringing the audience into close range of the combat. Platoon is a formidably uncompromising, but ultimately inspired, portrait of the war.

Adding to the immediacy and shattering intimacy of the camera work is the use of the first-person perspective to narrate the events. We see the war through the eyes of the central character, a fresh-faced young recruit called Chris Taylor, played with great restraint and authenticity by Charlie Sheen in the greatest role of his career.

The irrationality and horror of the Vietnam War is exposed in a way seldom seen before, as the camera draws the audience into the skirmishes, battles and destruction of villages caught up in the conflict. In the visionary universality of the film, the platoon becomes a microcosm of America, with its class and racial divides. Soon after joining Bravo Company, Taylor sees that the soldiers are at the bottom of the barrel of society.

Platoon seems to be prescient about the way the gun can turn some men into homicidal sociopaths willing to kill not just the enemy but also innocent civilians.  Stone’s film is prescient, too, about the divisions in US society deepening into open conflict, as we see in today’s fully polarised America. This theme of civil polarisation (“We forgot ourselves and the enemy was in us” as Taylor confesses towards the end of the movie) is explored in the intense rivalry between Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes, who has become a killing machine, and Sergeant Elias, an equally dedicated soldier who still believes in the rule of law. Tom Berenger pulls off a memorable and intimidating performance as the sinister Barnes, who has become a lawless force of violence, an embodiment of pure war, while William Dafoe portrays Elias as an infinitely nuanced and flawed hero. The brilliance of both actors in this movie is complimented by a superb cast of supporting characters, producing, together, a rich portrait of the platoon, where many members are hanging onto their humanity by a thread in a twisted reality far, far removed from the world back home.

What a vivid tapestry of characters, what a picture of the hell and insanity of the war, what a masterpiece of dynamic cinema!