On Oliver Stone's “Platoon”
Halbetsam in the Delta, early 1960s
[David Halberstam died in a car crash on April 23, 2007, in San Francisco.]
I had waited for this film a very long time.
By nature the movie industry has been a notorious cheat when it comes to confronting serious subjects, and on Vietnam in particular there was a rare schizophrenic attitude on the part of the industry's leaders. No industry, at the height of the antiwar movement, seemed so committed to ending the war. Its moguls outbid each other at Vietnam fund-raisers, its celebrities flashed their peace beads endlessly, and yet to an uncommon degree the very same people backed off making serious movies about the war. Hollywood in all those years gave at the fund-raiser, not at the office.
The one real exception was John Wayne, who made ''The Green Berets.'' Wayne's attitude towards Vietnam was some 180 degrees different from mine, but at least he put his money where his mouth was.
Of the serious postwar films that have preceded ''Platoon,'' none to me ever passed the test of being a true Vietnam war movie. ''Coming Home'' was poignant, an interesting remake of ''The Best Years of Our Lives,'' a movie about the effect of the war but not about the war itself. ''The Deer Hunter'' was a brilliant movie about the rites of passage in a blue-collar town. Its weakest scenes were the ones shot in Vietnam; and ''Apocalypse Now'' was two films, an occasionally brilliant Vietnam movie mixed gether with Francis Coppola's version of ''Heart of Darkness.''
By contrast, ''Platoon'' is about Vietnam. It exists only, as they say, in-country. It has no other objective, no other agenda. To me it is both a great American movie and a great war movie. Its combat scenes are as good as any I have ever seen. As a war movie, it ranks with my other two favorites, ''All Quiet on the Western Front'' and ''Paths of Glory.'' It is painfully realistic. The other side gets to shoot back. The enemy soldiers, albeit more of a shadow hovering constantly in the background than a fleshed-out reality, are portrayed as professional and tough.
From the very early scene when the Americans set a night ambush, we see the N.V.A. regulars move into that ambush and we see how skillful and careful they are. In a World War II movie, all the N.V.A. soldiers would be blown away; in this one, although surprised, they fight with considerable skill.
It is critical in understanding ''Platoon'' to know when it took place. It is the time of Tet, and it comes at the end of a vast series of miscalculations on the part of the American architects of the war: they have, first and foremost, miscalculated the tenacity and durability of the N.V.A. and miscalculated Hanoi's willingness to send regulars into the South; they have misjudged the capacity of American airpower to limit infiltration into the South; they have miscalculated the effectiveness of our allies, the South Vietnamese regulars; and they have miscalculated whether we can even control the tempo of the war - in reality it is the other side which controls it, alternately raising or lowering the level of violence to suit its purpose. The young Americans, semi-stranded here in a bitter and costly struggle on the Cambodian border - in truth, military orphans of a great and distant nation - are the ones who are paying for all these miscalculations in a war that the rest of the country is turning from.
By this time, more and more of the grunts are draftees instead of volunteers, and most of them have sensed that the war cannot be won, and that the only remaining cause is survival; that is the moment which Oliver Stone has captured here, and he has done it brilliantly. ''Platoon'' always feels right. The acting is uniformly exceptional. Some people have complained about his allegorical use of the two sergeants. I have no problem with them: both seem real enough to me. Barnes (Tom Berenger) as the sergeant of darkness, is simply extraordinary. When he says, ''I am reality,'' I believe him, and if I were a member of that platoon, I would alternately loathe him and figure he was my only ticket home; Elias (Willem Dafoe), as the sergeant of light, seems even more haunting, an idealized portrait of human sweetness wasting away in the dark. If they are not who we are, they are certainly who we can become.
It is part of Mr. Stone's immense achievement that in breaking away from the genre of the World War II movie, he has cast his film not as Hollywood normally does, by traditional demographics , the good cleancut farm kid from Iowa, the wiseguy from Brooklyn, the slow but steadfast Pole from Chicago, the plainspoken but shrewd Texas country boy, but by psyche, by what the war did to the grunts themselves and by what happened to them as they were forced to respond to it.
We see them through the prism of Vietnam and in the civilization of Vietnam, not as is usually done in a war movie, through the prism of America and the civilization of America. That, too, is a triumph; most of our war movies are a reflection of Hollywood's vision of what it wants America to be, both at home and at war; Mr. Stone has settled for us as we were in that terrible moment, and that is enough.
For a long time after I saw ''Platoon'' the first time and then again after I saw it a second time, I wondered why I found the movie so powerful, so genuinely authentic. Obviously part of it is the acting and the directing. One scene after another seems stunningly real. But the movie transcends all the individual scenes, no matter how good they are. Then finally I realized what it was. What Mr. Stone has captured and put together is the special reality of Vietnam, the loneliness of these men, how isolated they are and how on this terrain they are always foreigners.
It is we, not those whom we would track, who are the aliens. It is the Americans, despite their immense firepower, who are always surrounded, either by the terrain, or by the enemy, or by the enemy using the terrain. Because we are aliens, there is the constant sense that the other side is everywhere. The feeling of that isolation is so pervasive that it reaches into the audience. As the men are in effect stranded, so is the audience watching the movie in warm, comfortable theaters back in America. This is why no matter how brilliant the individual parts of ''Platoon,'' the whole exceeds their sum, and why he has been able to communicate his experience to those who did not share it.
Every person who went there has his own Vietnam, and I have no doubt that there are some who went there who savor their own memories and who are offended by some portion of ''Platoon,'' be it the allegory of the two sergeants or the My Lai-like incident in the village. But I think that Mr. Stone has not just captured combat in general, but Vietnam in a way so special that any dissent from what he has given us seems almost petty. He has, I think, captured and blended into his larger tapestry two critical factors which help explain why we were unsuccessful in Vietnam, and the average person who goes to the movie in some elemental way can understand them.
I think, for example, that many Americans, in their late 50's, 60's and 70's, Americans of traditional loyalties who found Vietnam so puzzling, will find ''Platoon'' helpful in understanding their own political conversion. After all, these were people who, as the war went on, gradually turned on it, even as they were uncomfortable in doing so.
Because Mr. Stone has complemented the historians of the war, these people will understand the degree to which the heavy foliage filtered out the principal American asset, our technological superiority. There was never any chance that Americans would be more willing to die for victory in Vietnam than would the other side, skilled, professional, already engaged in revolutionary war for 20 years. Thus the only true lever of power there was our technology, our airplanes, helicopters, armored vehicles and artillery. But the movie shows explicitly how the jungle and the night diminished that advantage and reduced the edge to a ratio which the other side could bear.
We dropped, according to the Pentagon Papers, two and a half times the amount of bombs we used in World War II, and it made no difference. Watching this movie, seeing the thickness of the jungle, seeing the other side move at night, one can readily understand why that was true.
What Mr. Stone has done in both a medium given to fantasy and in a political age given to longing (if not fantasy) is to strike an enormous blow for reality, for what happens when we do not understand what we are doing and what our limits are. One cannot truly appreciate his achievement, I think, without comparing it to the work of Sylvester Stallone. If this is not the age of Rambo politically (rhetoric which greatly exceeds our political and military realities, cowboys dashing out of the White House on illegal, incompetent, covert operations), then it most assuredly has been - until ''Platoon'' - cinematically. It would be hard for me to understate my loathing for Mr. Stallone and what he has done. I have no doubt that Mr. Stallone is politically one of the shrewdest men in Hollywood, with a surprisingly keen instinct for the raw nerve in American life and for sensing the social and economic frustrations of our age.
That is no small gift; regrettably, like a demagogue - a cinematic Joe McCarthy - he has chosen not so much to explain what has gone wrong and why, to illuminate our condition to ourselves, as to exploit it. ''Rambo'' fantasizes the war as it should have been (as Rocky in an age of Muhammad Ali, Teofilo Stevenson and Mike Tyson fantasizes the heavyweight boxing world; the fantasy is Sylvester Stallone, the reality is Gerry Cooney) . But the war was not a fantasy and it was very real, and so was the enemy. The N.V.A., by its battlefield skills and battlefield valor and willingness to pay a terrible price, stalemated one of the mightiest armies in the history of mankind.
Yet for all his professed admiration of the American grunts, Mr. Stallone diminishes what they did because he diminishes their opponents: in ''Rambo'' we are told that where an American battalion would have failed, one soldier-as-cowboy can do it all, wipe out hundreds of dinky Vietnamese. With the barely covert racism of the movie, Mr. Stallone would undo what few lessons we have learned from Vietnam.
Because of ''Rambo,'' I am that much more in Oliver Stone's debt. I am surprised in part that more people in the world in which I move do not share my passion for it and indeed have not seen the movie. Sometimes at dinner parties, I ask others, more often than not people who were against the war, if they have seen ''Platoon,'' and they often answer, that well, they have read about it, but it sounds too brutal, too real.
Real it is. This is the ultimate work of witness, something which has the authenticity of documentary and yet the vibrancy and originality of art. Oliver Stone seems to me to be the almost miraculous survivor, someone who went to Vietnam to do one thing and managed to survive in order to do another. I am not sure which is his greater achievement, getting the film made in such a shallow and hostile environment or making so remarkable a movie. But in the process he has done something more important than all the war's historians; he has given us something which is not only real, but which lives.