Cast: Charlie Sheen (Private Chris), Willem Dafoe (Sergeant Elias), Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger)
Director: Oliver Stone
Alongside Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone’s Platoon is the best representation I have seen of the devastation caused by the Vietnam War. Of the two films, Platoon’s approach is a bit less poetic, opting for gritty and harrowing realism, quickly turning into a fairly direct indictment of one of history’s most violent and pointless armed conflicts.
The film focuses on a group of soldiers who, in most cases, had been stripped of most (if not all) of their humanity by the time we are introduced to them on screen. War in Platoon is nothing to glorify, there are no winners, losers or heroes to be found. In the Vietnam of the film there are only victims and victimizers. There are no attempts at turning war into an entertaining sensory spectacle, nor are there any attempts to glorify violence and brutality in any way. In fact, the image of the American soldier is downright controversial, depicting battle-scarred soldiers that have long forgotten how to distinguish between right and wrong.
Today is yet another pleasurable encounter with my keyboard as I get to review a very unique and accomplished film: Apocalypse Now.
At 153 minutes, Apocalypse Now is a very long movie that fails only in its lack of momentum which, at times, can make the movie drag a bit in its final few scenes. However, the film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, moves with a gentle pace so we can absorb and get to know the Vietnamese jungle intimately at the time of the American occupation following the rise of Comunism in the Far East. It is a film that, without a doubt, pays homage to its title by attempting, with great success, to capture the apocalyptical devastation caused by the war in the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam, of American soldiers, and of a country that had grown doubtful of the whole military campaign.
For most of its length, the film follows Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) on a strange mission to assassinate a rogue Green Beret beyond the thick jungle and into the depths of remote Cambodia where he is believed to be. We first encounter Willard laying anxiously on his bed, back in the United States, narrating his inability to lead a normal life while his mind and heart had stayed in Vietnam. He waits for a new deployment, abhorring his new uneventful life away from the chaotic setting of the war. When Willard finally gets his wish and is reassigned to the war, he narrates from the future, explaining that the place he was headed to was the worst place in the world.
It comes as no surprise that the movie becomes more about the path than about the destination. After meeting with some officials that include a very young Harrison Ford, Willard is assigned a small group of soldiers to navigate across Vietnam and into Cambodia. Along the way we are reminded of the objective of the mission by Willard’s narration, but it slowly fades into the background as we are presented with the horror of the war and the collapse of the American endeavor.
First, Willard meets an official, masterfully played by Robert Duvall, who is portrayed as an odd mutation of the rigid West-Point trained officer, always walking with confidence and unafraid of his surroundings, as if he knew he wasnt meant to die in the war. Such confidence borders with insanity as he seems detached from what is happening around him and asks the impossible from his troops, repeatedly risking their lives more for his depraved entertainment, than for a true military purpose.
Like the officer, Willard encountered one odd situation after another, showing us an American force that was poorly trained, managed and directed, with soldiers that had lost their grip on reality, leaving morality far behind.
In this context, Willard begins to find a strange wisdom in the words and actions of the mad-man he is supposed to kill. Willard doubts the purpose of the mission more and more as it becomes clear to him that a rogue Green Beret is just a small problem in a war effort that is falling apart in front of his eyes.
In the more than 2 hours of the film, Willard remains the more sane of all characters, even when he is part of a mission with little purpose and that is depicted as a consequence to the insanity of the circumstances.
By the time Willard finally meets the rogue Colonel Kurtz, he is only with a couple of soldiers, trapped in a foreign world where madness was apparent everywhere, yet no one seemed to notice.
Sadly, the film anticipates the moment so much and for so long that even if the Colonel, played rather subtly by the great Marlon Brando, had been wearing an elephant head for a hat, we would have felt a bit let down by the “monster” Willard was supposed to encounter.
Above all, Apocalypse Now is an effective atmospheric poem about how pointless and tragic the War in Vietnam was. Marlon Brando, in this sense, becomes Coppola’s flagship to represent the ultimate American tragedy: a promising, smart and courageous leader of men driven to despair and insanity by the horror of a needless war.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (masterpiece)