PLATOON - Blu-ray review

Frankly, I expected more bonus features for a 25th anniversary edition of a Best Picture winner.

James Plath's picture

"Salvador" (1986) put Oliver Stone on the Hollywood map. "Platoon" (also 1986) gave him his star as an Oscar-winning director.

Stone's Vietnam War film received eight Academy Award nominations and earned Best Picture, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and a Best Director statue for Stone, who also received a nomination for his screenplay. "Platoon" was the first in a second wave of Vietnam War films that included "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987), "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), "Hamburger Hill" (1987), "The Hanoi Hilton" (1987), "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989), and "Casualties of War" (1989). What they all had in common with first wave--films like "The Deer Hunter" (1978), "Coming Home" (1978), "Apocalypse Now" (1979), and "Friendly Fire" (1979) was an inclination toward truthful realism that all but rebutted the romanticized account theater-goers first saw in "The Green Berets" (1968).

Vietnam was a different kind of war, and those later films really showed it. Before Vietnam, the traditional war movie focused on that same "red badge of courage" fight-or-flight syndrome that Stephen Crane described in his Civil War novel. But a funny thing happened with Vietnam. Maybe it was the beer and drugs that the soldiers had easy-access to, or maybe it was the anti-war protests and the ruckus back home. They weren't just soldiers fighting a war far away from their homeland--they were "grunts" who felt absolutely confused and unappreciated. Vietnam was the first war where there was widespread disobedience. In fact, there were numerous reports of commanding officers being felled by their own men.

Stone based "Platoon" on his own experience as a foot soldier in Vietnam, and what he writes isn't far-fetched. It's collaborated by other Vietnam War writers who also did tours of duty--like Tim O'Brien, whose novel Going after Cacciato also includes an episode where infantrymen agree to "frag" their lieutenant.

That makes for a lousy war and a messy set of moral principles, but it sure creates a compelling storyline for a film. When "fresh meat" Chris (Charlie Sheen) arrives in Vietnam for his tour of duty, he runs into all sorts of characters and situations. There are undercurrents of black soldiers vs. white, and doves versus hawks. But none of those clashes compares to the one between Sgts. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Elias (Willem Dafoe). Both men have been "in country" for a long time, and both are veterans who, if they were in the Wild West, would have distinguished themselves by their wilderness and weaponry skills. But whereas Barnes is a "gook" hater prone to "waste" villagers and torch villages, Elias is someone who believes that not every villager is a North Vietnamese guerilla.

The cast that makes up this ragtag platoon are an interesting bunch. Barnes' "toadies" include Bunny (Kevin Dillon, "Entourage") and O'Neill (John C. McGinley, "Scrubs"), while Chris is clearly an Elias follower. Also look for Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland") and a very young Johnny Depp as fellow grunts. The plot follows Chris as he is transformed from a naïve, "green" recruit to a mad-dog sort who eventually starts to figure out the lay of the land and gets a handle on his own emotions. Clearly, war has a huge effect on people, and Stone wanted to explore the directions it could take normal, ordinary foot soldiers who've never been exposed to anything quite like this. Some of their moral compasses spin wildly between compassion for the enemy and a vitriol-fueled anger that seems more directed at the fact that they have to be there than anything else. In fact, some of that spinning accounts for what I think is the film's only flaw. Sheen's character seems just a little schizophrenic, vacillating between a reluctant participant in the mayhem that soldiers wreak on villagers and a complete psycho who seems to sadistically enjoy tormenting the innocents. The war affected people that way, but a little more character development would have helped here. Otherwise, "Platoon" cruises along.

Robert Richardson's cinematography brings the jungle and the rice paddies and the villages to life, and that includes the ambiguity that comes from not knowing whether a peasant is what he seems, or a Viet Cong. Ambient jungle sounds also add to the tension, all of which serves as an external variation of what's going on inside each soldier's head and gut.

As with most Vietnam War movies, the soundtrack also plays a major role. Included here are such diverse tunes as "Tracks of My Tears" (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles), "Groovin'" (The Rascals), "Respect" (Aretha Franklin), "White Rabbit" (Jefferson Airplane), and "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" (Otis Redding).

This is the 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD combo pack, and "Platoon" hasn't lost any of its power over the years. Berenger, Dafoe, and Sheen really carry the picture as much as the action or Stone's direction. There's a lot here to digest, but it's full-on war and a psychological study of men in wartime situations--and that means some graphic footage. If you can abide by that, "Platoon" is still worth your time.

"Platoon" is rated "R" for language, extreme violence, and gore-and there's plenty of all three.

"Platoon" comes to Blu-ray for the first time via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc. How does it look? Better than the Special Edition DVD, but inconsistent. You'll be cruising along with very little grain and then all of a sudden you'll hit a patch that has much more of it. Same with black levels. For the most part they're strong, but then you'll run across a scene that gets a little I'm sure people will complain about DNR, but when I interviewed Ron Smith (who restored "The Ten Commandments") he said that there's been a certain amount of noise reduction on every single transfer that's ever been done, because when you turn grain that looks very natural on film into digital data it reads as noise. It has to be taken scene by scene, and that's why so many films do seem to vary. Overall, I think fans of "Platoon" will be happy with this transfer.

"Platoon" was initially released in a simple 2.0 stereo, and while the restoration experts could have made this sound like a rock 'em sock 'em affair, they opted instead to stay respectfully close to the film's original soundtrack. That means that the sound isn't as rich or full or dynamic as more recently made war movies, and the theme music that plays mournfully in the background can seem a bit muffled or squeezed. Even when the pop-culture soundtrack kicks in, it still doesn't have the juice of other films that crank up the volume. For some, that will be just fine; others will wish for a little more dynamics than the featured English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack provides, or even the English 4.0 Digital Surround that's offered as an improvement over the 2.0. Additional audio options are in Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and French DTS 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French.

Carried over from the two-disc Special Edition DVD are two commentary tracks--one by Oliver Stone, and the other by military advisor Capt. (Ret.) Dale Dye--that are better than average. Dye's has more information and he covers more ground than Stone, who, if you've heard one of his commentaries you already know, plods along in a low-key, almost mumbling way.

"Flashback to 'Platooon'" is the big bonus feature on this 25th anniversary release, a three-part feature that offers "Snapshot in Time: 1967-68," "Creating the 'Nam," and "Raw Wounds: The Legacy of 'Platoon.'" Some of the material seems to have been reused from an earlier documentary not included here, but the emphasis is on the history, the filmmaking process, and the aftermath of Vietnam.

"One War, Many Stories" and "Preparing for 'Nam" are a pair of documentaries that feature Vietnam vets. The longest is the first one, a nearly half-hour of vets talking about the film in relation to their own experiences, with occasional shots of Stone doing the same thing. "Preparing for 'Nam" is a very brief discussion of that hard decision to enlist and what they went through in basic training.

Fans of the film will also appreciate a dozen deleted scenes, playable with or without commentary by Stone. One of them, a "dream sequence," Stone flat-out labels "stupid," so there's no mystery why it was cut. The other interesting scene is an alternate ending that Stone says now that he should have used instead of the one he chose. More good stuff here, and the scenes are in better shape than most that are dragged kicking and screaming from the vault.

Rounding out the bonus features are a trailer, TV spots, and three vignettes that total just six minutes: a clip of author Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War) recalling the evacuation of Saigon, Capt. Dye talking about his role in training the actors, and a clip revealing that during the making of "Platoon" Stone got the idea for Gordon Gekko ("Wall Street").

Frankly, I expected more bonus features for a 25th anniversary edition of a Best Picture winner.

Bottom Line:
"Platoon" still ranks as one of the top Vietnam War movies, and perhaps even one of the top war movies, period. Stone, who's known for his excess, offers a few voiceover lines that border on the cheesy, but other than that it's a pretty straightforward realistic tour of duty. And that's what makes it so powerful.


Film Value