When you pick up a script, and can’t put it down to start the movie, you know you’ve stumbled across some talented screenwriting. In an effort to discover yet another way to watch a movie, I read Oliver Stone’s Platoon scene by scene, watching only after I’d read a good chunk of dialogue first. Or in some cases, long very long action sequences. I was still able to enjoy every word of it despite my lack of knowledge in military terminology that only comes along with being a seasoned veteran, like Oliver Stone himself. It’s clear throughout the film that Platoon is immersed in Stone’s actual experience from his service in the Vietnam War. I’d like to start off by saying that I have the utmost respect for a man willing to put his life on the line for our country, survive, and then come back to tell us what he learned from it all.
While I don’t pretend to be an expert on Vietnamese or Cambodian geography, Stone’s detailed descriptions set the stage for Platoon, making each moment feel real, despite the lack of modern-day special effects. In scenes that were heavy with action, Stone used a concise language that kept the script flowing but was still able to capture the image he had in his head of how the scene should look. This makes for a “thick script”, taking about two pages for every two minutes of film, but Stone is able to make all that reading worth it.
What also helps add to the believability of Platoon is that it was filmed in the Philippines. This exotic location in the same general corner of the world shows the audience the essence of Vietnam without going into the territory that was still reeling from the war in 1985 when the film was shot. Also, I’m sure most movie-goers couldn’t tell the difference. I still felt the several climate changes through my computer screen, from rain, to intense heat, to rain, to rain, to more rain. The reality of the backdrop helped me sympathize with our main lead, doe-eyed Chris Taylor (played by the infamous Charlie Sheen).
Speaking of which, Platoon was the movie that jump-started the careers of many Hollywood “Big Shots” today. In Charlie Sheen’s case, feel free to deliberate whether or not this was a good thing. However, many others took advantage of the golden opportunity that Oliver Stone was handing them, and definitely made a name for themselves. If you are an avid movie-goer, names like Forrest Whittaker, Keith David, Johnny Depp (pre-Burton), Mark Moses, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, and John C. McGuinley, just to name a few. With so many great actors begging for our attention, at points the movie seemed a bit chaotic. In the first twenty minutes alone, we were introduced to over twenty new, important faces that continued to show up for the entire two hours. Since reading the script while watching the movie is kind of like watching the movie twice, I was able to keep up.
This chaos seemed to go hand in hand with the content of the movie, again making war seem real to those of us who are sitting safely on a couch, bag of popcorn in hand. However, in doing so, Stone lost some of the backstory and character development that can be crucial to a film. The entire plot is structured by these voice overs by Sheen, narrating the letters sent back home to Grandma. From the first voice over to the last, we still know the same amount about Christ Taylor’s life: that he dropped out of college to enlist because he didn’t want to end up like his fiscally-focused parents. As the ending credits rolled, I wished Stone had played more with Taylor’s troubled past because I think it would’ve helped make Sheen’s character more dynamic. However, without this, Sheen’s portrayal of the transformation of an idealistic 20 something to a true soldier still reached a fulfilling climax and resolution.
Stone begins this movie with the quote, “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth…”, foreshadowing a transition in the first few seconds of the film. The irony of this quote is that most of the young men surrounding our main character are killed before they get the chance to mature, forever “rejoicing” in their youth. I think the point of incorporating so many characters with such little information for each was to make the point that in war, you can’t keep track of the number of soldiers who are killed in action. While this deprived us of the chance to grow attached to Platoon’s many supporting roles, it made the point that war is never about one man, but thousands. Although I still yearned for more information, I got through the movie without needing it to enjoy the experience. I felt like I was the nurse over seeing an open heart surgery; I could only look over the shoulder of a masked man at something cold, disconnected from me, yet nonetheless scary. This disconnect gives us an objectivity when looking at the questions the plot asks, like what’s the difference between rage and bravery and who’s the real enemy in a war like this. Although these questions are never answered directly, they drive the film to reach the viewers moral limits, and thus proceed to ask the questions that no one likes to ask.
After watching this movie, or others like it, including Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now, I wanted to tell the same, powerful story that only a war movie can tell. But I can only comment on a true war story, because I’ve also learned that the only way to portray war with any truth is to speak from experience. And so, ironically, I write an novel about boys pretending to be soldiers, knowing that the only way I can tell a powerful story like Platoon is through pretend.
MOVIES WATCHED: 13
SCREENPLAY PAGES WRITTEN: 44
NOVEL PAGES WRITTEN: 70