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With a trip to Vietnam a few months ahead of me I’ve been running old movies and new books through my mind.  Oliver Stone‘s Platoon [1986] shot into view the other night [Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound, Best Editing, 1987 Oscars.]  It was the movie that put him on the movie-maker’s map, and was the first of what became his Vietnam war trilogy.  Born of the Fourth of July[1989] the story of all American Ron Kovic who returned from the war wheel-chair crippled and became a leader of the movement against the war was the immediate follow up.  Heaven and Earth, [1993] about a Vietnamese woman, brutalized by her countrymen, who comes to the United States with Marine sweetheart, was the third.

Platoon is definitely a ‘war movie.’  Shot in the Philippines it brings the viewer right into the mud and the jungle, the fear and explosions and body parts of the war. No complaints.  Very real.  Terrorizing the Vietnamese; the GIs inflamed by a nailed up corpse. Screaming in GI English.  Screaming in Vietnamese.  Gun shots to the head.  A gang rape — interrupted by a newbie who, improbably, stops six men with guns.

The central character, modeled on Stone himself, who quit college to enlist as a grunt, is Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen, and some odd things happen here.  His supporting cast often rings true, especially Keith David as King, a big, down-to-earth black soldier who is there to get Taylor’s starry eyed wonder and self-endangering idealism in check. But why oh why fit Sheen out with a bright red bandanna wrapped around his forehead in the middle of jungle fighting?  Even better than a big Shoot Here! sign. Oh, and freshly shampooed hair until the final climactic scene.  Sheen doesn’t ever quite convince us that he’s not acting.

The two poles of the philosophical duel of how best to be immersed in a killing field are played by Willem Dafoe as Sergeant Elias (the one we like, with a kind of zen minimalism about violence) and Tom Berenger as scar-faced Sergeant Bob Barnes (the pathological one, whose fragging we eventually get to guiltlessly cheer.) The war within a war is played well and ratchets up the tension as, interestingly, the less personal violence of bombs and raking AK-47 fire do not.

Yes, it’s a war movie.  For me the question always is, is it an anti-war movie? Which is what, I ask myself.  What effect would Platoon [or All Quiet On the Western Front, or A Farewell to Arms] have on a youngster between his first meeting with a recruiter and his possible signing enlistment papers?  Would watching this jack up his adrenaline and his I’m-eighteen-year-old-immortal deering-do?  Or would it impress him, as it would his mother, with the cruelty, the danger, the arbitrariness of death, the guilt he would likely carry with him forever – regardless of who pulled the trigger on the old, terrified woman?

I think, for a young man, or woman, the adrenaline would carry the day.  Oliver Stone is nothing if not a big, macho writer and director.  Whatever his politics and philosophy of life, which for me is often on the right side, with the kicked and against the kickers, his viscera usually rules.  Chris Taylor is reflective on his helicopter ride out but what he doesn’t learn is that shouting Boom Boom Boom! isn’t a warning so much as a inspiration, a motivation.