Picks and Pans Review: Platoon

updated 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

No sane person should want to get any closer to war than this film. Focusing on a 25th Infantry Division platoon in Vietnam, it is often as emotionally grueling as such great war films as All Quiet on the Western Front, A Walk in the Sun and The Jungle Fighters. Writer-director Oliver (Midnight Express) Stone, who enlisted at age 21 and fought in 1967-68 with the 25th Infantry near the Cambodian border, re-creates the war with unnerving honesty. The sounds, the light, the texture are right. So is the withering sense of fear, the instant cynicism that the war generated, and the looks of anger and terror on the faces of Vietnamese youth who never had a childhood. In one evocative scene the platoon enters a village after just having lost two men. It is never clear whether the villagers are Vietcong or North Vietnamese sympathizers; it is clear that everyone on both sides has been seized by the war at its most unreasoning. Stone's ability to make the ensuing atrocities understandable is probably his biggest achievement. What keeps this film from being the masterpiece it might have been is Stone's implicit lack of respect for his audience. If ever a story could speak for itself, this is it, yet Stone seems unconvinced that anyone will get his message—that this was a confused, hopelessly vicious war on both sides. He hammers it out, with voice-overs and on-camera philosophical debates that merely remind viewers that it's only a movie after all. He also fails to answer a crucial question: What makes Tom (The Big Chill) Berenger such a remorseless killer? Berenger plays a super-hard-core platoon sergeant, a peerless soldier gone bad. Yet Stone never provides a clue as to whether the war fed on Berenger's ruthlessness or created it. Berenger himself is faultless, as is most of Stone's cast. Notable are Charlie (Lucas) Sheen, the new man whose letters to Grandma supply the voice-overs, Keith (The Thing) David, Forest (The Color of Money) Whitaker and Reggie (Perfect) Johnson. Retired Marine captain Dale Dye, who served as technical adviser, plays a credible company commander. The actors' contribution is even more significant than usual, since they have to compete with Stone's philosophical grandstanding. That they succeed so well is to the director's credit, too, of course. There is more than a little greatness in this movie. Perhaps it is only fitting that Stone's film, like the war it depicts, should be riven at its heart with ambivalence. (R)

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