Saturday, February 6, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "Platoon" (1986)

Scene from Platoon
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: February 6, 1986
Director: Oliver Stone
Written By: Oliver Stone
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe
Genre: Drama, War
Running Time: 120 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Sound
-Best Editing

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Actor (Tom Berenger)
-Best Supporting Actor (Willem Dafoe)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Cinematography

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Children of a Lesser God
-Hannah and Her Sisters
-The Mission
-A Room with a View

And the winner is...

There is a common notion that most believe: "War is hell." Since the beginning of The Academy Awards, the depiction of war has been meant to show the perils and dangers of the violence. While there have been more artful takes of war, very few have likely compared to director Oliver Stone's Platoon: a film that marked the first time that a Vietnam War veteran made a film. If it feels personal and unflinching, one can owe that largely to Stone's experience and his desire to show the depiction of war in the most hellish and depressing ways possible. While it can be riveting at times, Platoon is also one of the most bleak war films in the history of American film. If it's not the best Vietnam War film in history, it's at least one of the best made by someone who actually lived it.

The story begins with Stone returning from his service in the Vietnam War in 1968. Upon seeing the John Wayne film The Green Berets, he was outraged and wrote a screenplay that would serve as the prototype for Platoon called Break. While Break was never filmed, he used the ideas and the film became The Platoon. He wanted to make it, but found himself in the face of a disinterested society. Many studios believed that Vietnam War films weren't profitable at the time. He made a variety of projects in the meantime, including Year of the Dragon with director Michael Cimino for a lower-than-normal price on belief that he would make The Platoon with producer Dino Delaurentiis (who was able to finance the film, but still was unable to land any major studio). In a move that seemed ironic, The Platoon had already been delayed because Cimino's The Deer Hunter (along with Apocalypse Now) to be the pinnacle of Vietnam War cinema, and thus wouldn't have anyone interested in it.

Attention turned to Stone's other script Salvador (which would later earn him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), which producer John Daly promised to finance along with The Platoon. Since Delaurentiis had already helped Stone scout locations in the Philippines, things were finally on their way. While Stone initially wanted to use The Doors singer Jim Morrison in the lead, he died in 1971 - with the script in his possession. Stone was able to bring together the cast with some ease, though insisted on an unorthodox way of shooting. He claimed that he wanted everyone to have an animosity towards each other; a factor he achieved by depriving them of sleep and putting them through a two week boot camp. 

The crew arrived around the time of The Edsa Revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos. Actor Willem Dafoe would claim to have seen tanks driving around on a few days. In order to help maintain authenticity, many of the Vietnamese characters were played by actual refugees. Small moments such as when soldiers break up potentially traumatic situations were based off of Stone's personal experience. It would get to the point once where Stone had flashbacks to the war and sought solace with the boot camp instructor. The actors also were known to smoke marijuana before shooting scenes to relax. However, the high would go away by the time that they actually started shooting, leaving a lingering sense of dread as they acted out the scenes. The film also featured real explosions and ammunition being shot (sometimes by Stone) at various points throughout the film.

The film was shot entirely in chronological order. This even helped to create more significant farewells for various characters. Due to this set-up, actors were allowed to return home upon completion of filming. In the case of the protagonist, played by Charlie Sheen, his emotional response at the end of the film was genuine, as he was actually returning home after a grueling shooting schedule. When returning home, Sheen famously reported to have kissed the ground in thankfulness. In another instance while shooting aboard a helicopter, Sheen was tossed towards an open doorway that would've meant certain death. However, actor Keith David managed to catch him. Among the smaller cast members was Johnny Depp, who was too young for the lead, but whom Stone believed would become a very big actor later on (a fact that would be proven within the next decade). 

On a budget of $6 million, the film was a financial success and grossed $138.5 million, thus proving detractors wrong. It was also one of three Vietnam War movies released within a few months of each other, the others being Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill. However, Platoon outdid both of them at The Oscars that year, receiving eight nominations, half of which won. Besides being the first Hollywood film directed by a Vietnam War vet period, it was the first time that a veteran also won Best Picture and Best Director (Stone became the first veteran to win in general previously for Salvador). Among the film's other achievements, Stone is also the last Vietnam War veteran filmmaker to win an Oscar. In the decade to come, Clint Eastwood would win for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. He is a veteran of the Korean War, but never actually fought in the war, thus also making Stone the last winner to have been in combat.

The film's legacy is well known and has since been considered one of the most brutal movies about the Vietnam War to ever be released. It was also the first in a trilogy of war-related movies that Stone would release, including Born on the Fourth of July (which was nominated for Best Picture) and Heaven and Earth. Stone has remained active in doing politically charged movies ever since, also tackling presidents and Mexican drug trafficking. Among Platoon's real world achievements, it has been well documented that United States military leadership classes uses the character Lt. Wolfe as a prime example of how not to behave as a junior officer. Even the cast poked fun at the film's legacy. In Hot Shots Part Deux, Sheen references the film while passing his father Martin Sheen aboard boats on a river (Martin Sheen had starred in the Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now). 

The Vietnam War allowed for fruitful subject matter in cinema. However, it was rarely done by someone who had experienced it, and thus never felt as authentic as Platoon did. With a dour atmosphere and several scorching and memorable moments, the film continues to live on as an unrepentant portrait of war the likes of which not even Stone has been able to recapture since. It's a film that definitely lives up to the "War is hell" mantra and purposely marches into the abyss. Even if it isn't the most artful, it's one of the most aggressive war films to ever grace the screen, setting the record straight for why war is an unpleasant experience. It's a film that continues to live on, thanks to its provocative execution. Even if the war is over, there's a good chance that cinema will never be over Platoon.

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