Thursday, August 27, 2015

Birthday Take: Robert Richardson in "Platoon (1986)

Scene from Platoon
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Robert Richardson
Born: August 27, 1955 (60 years old)
Nomination: Best Cinematography (nominated) for Platoon

The Take

Every year at the Oscars, people are quick to bet on the major categories. Who is going to win the various acting categories? Which director will win? Even if nothing holds as much debate as the Best Picture conflict, there is something that most people don't pay that much attention to. It's the manufacturing of the film. It's the script and the visual appearance that most often gets ignored. Is it because names like Emmanuel Lubezki don't capture the same excitement as Leonardo DiCaprio? Well, they should. You see, without a good cinematographer, you wouldn't implicitly like movies as much as you do.

Take for instance the work of Robert Richardson; a name you don't likely know, but have seen his work. He's recently worked with Quentin Tarantino on Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained (for which he received nominations). However, his career goes back to the 80's with one of the most surreal and intense war films put to film. Director Oliver Stone's breakout film Platoon is best known for its ultraviolent, nihilistic approach to war that has an incredible cast of familiar faces giving performances, no matter how small, that you'll remember. Hey, it was even during a time when Charlie Sheen was considered a promising actor. Even if I don't love Platoon as much as some war movie enthusiasts, you have to admire how concrete this film is in its dourness.

Just imagine Platoon without Richardson. The film may theoretically look very different. With the film almost entirely covered in forests, even the sky looks threatening. As the war breaks out and the various perils occur, we are met with beautiful shots of tragedy. Take for instance the iconic Willem Dafoe death in which he waves mercilessly as he is gunned to his death. It may seem like an exploitative scene of violence, but its beauty overwhelms you in a way that overlooks the tragedy. Since Stone served in the military and has experience, it makes sense that his story is honest. However, it wouldn't matter how truthful it was without the visuals.

The best of the Vietnam War movies can be summarized as "war is hell." Each of the iconic films have captured a different aspect, usually psychological. For Stone, there was an immediacy to his work that probably helped it feel more important. For all of its charm, Apocalypse Now's best moments are in meditation and The Deer Hunter's is in the sentimentality. For Stone, he turned to Richardson to bring the war to life. What's the best way? Make war into art with a visual pallet that is both beautiful and haunting, creating a perfect juxtaposition of the ideals of war. For whatever glory we have been taught to like about war from film, Platoon attempts to deconstruct it for the horror that it is. 

This wasn't the last of the Richardson-Stone collaborations. He would go on to do Born on the Fourth of July and JFK with him. Even if his name doesn't capture the immediacy that even Stone's name has, I feel that audiences should give a little more credit and recognition to the cinematographers behind your favorite films. For what it's worth, Platoon wouldn't have worked if the visual appearance was ugly. It would be a little too repulsive, taking too much bleakness into the already nihilistic story. It may be a little too much for some, but you cannot argue that the appearance is beautiful. It looks like there's probably going to be more Richardson soon, as he is doing the work on The Hateful Eight. Maybe it's a good time to look back on his work and get ready to talk more about what makes cinematography important to cinema.

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