Wednesday, April 26, 2006

We Were Soldiers (2002) vs. Platoon (1986)

Just as a lot can be learned about someone's personality from the music they listen to (ask yourself: could you really be friends with someone who bought a Clay Aiken CD?) a lot about a person's worldview can be derived from what movies they watch. You can bet that the opening night audience of The Passion of the Christ was markedly different than that of Fahrenheit 9/11, or that the main demographic for The Chronicles of Narnia wasn't buying tickets for Brokeback Mountain en masse.

Those four movies are extreme and obvious examples; they are more known for the media rage surrounding them than for the merit of the films themselves. While it can be argued that art should be evaluated independently of the political furor they raise, I think that understanding the times a movie appeared in can be integral to our understanding of cinema and how it reflects history. This is probably most important with the Vietnam War, one of our most cinematically explored conflicts.

The first Vietnam film was The Green Berets starring John Wayne. Released in 1968, when the Tet Offensive soured the American public on the war, the movie's anti-communist, pro-Saigon didacticism struck the public as hollow. Hollywood didn't deal with the war again until ten years later, when The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now were released with their frightening and hallucinatory imagery of Vietnam. Often inaccurate to the actual events of the war, these movies used Vietnam as a metaphor for madness.

In the early-to-mid eighties cartoony, hawkish revenge fantasies like First Blood and Missing in Action reflected a shifting mentality towards the war. It was when Platoon was released in 1986, that a new run of Vietnam films including Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July, Hamburger Hill, BAT 21, and Casualties of War began to probe the ambiguities and horrors of the conflict. They were decidedly leftist in flavor compared to the Reagan-era populism of Rambo.

Perhaps the US victory in the first Persian Gulf War (which many pundits said "wiped away the stain of our failure in Vietnam") satisfied our need for catharsis. The early nineties saw the audiences' appetite for Vietnam films start to dry up. Besides the sentimental Forrest Gump and Dead Presidents gangsta mentality, the cinematic well had dried up by the time Saving Private Ryan came along and changed the guerre de jour to World War II.

Besides changing the historical subject, Saving Private Ryan also fundamentally changed the paradigm for war movies. Vietnam war movies had upped the ante with their graphically violent and harrowing depictions of warfare. Ryan responded by making the battles even more violent while stripping away the moral ambiguities that the Vietnam films wallowed in. World War II was presented as a conflict where heroism was uncomplicated and the sides were clearly drawn. Soldiers were depicted as sometimes flawed, but fundamentally decent people. While the enemy is primarily there to be mown down en masse with machine guns, a few token scenes are thrown out there to give them some humanizing touches. They are frequently grueling, but never leave you with a sour taste. Though the productions pre-date the nationalist upsurge immediately following 9/11, this "Leave No Man Behind" ethos dovetailed perfectly with the country's mentality.

While Saving Private Ryan started a run of World War II films like The Thin Red Line, Pearl Harbor, and Windtalkers, its template has also been applied to other conflicts. Black Hawk Down applied it to the Somalia conflict. We Were Soldiers revisits Vietnam to apply this new vision of the war, and in the process makes the most positive statement about the war since The Green Berets. Surprisingly, it works. Sort of...

We Were Soldiers is based on a book by Joe Galloway and Lt. Colonel Hal Moore, who is played in the movie by Mel Gibson. Foreshadowing Gibson's transformation into a darling for the religious right, he plays Moore as a man who takes time out of his military career to pray with his children and dispense fatherly advice to his troops. Backed up by the gruff Sgt. Plumely (played by Sam Elliot, who turns in the movie's best performance) Moore starts the movie developing the first air cavalry, which utilized helicopters to transport soldiers quickly to battlefields. While the first part of the film is supposed to show the development of this new kind of warfare, mostly it details the tight bonds the unit develops during training.

Unfortunately, all this exposition doesn't serve to make any of the supporting cast memorable. The most prominently featured is the sensitive Lieutenant Jack, who wants to serve "to help orphans, not make them" and whose wife just had their first baby (so it's probably no surprise here if I let slip that he's toast later on.) Chris Klein walks around most of the movie looking lost, which is probably the only mode he's capable of. None of the other characters fare much better. Each are given little character scenes through the first half that make them seem like a bunch of unmemorable Boy Scouts, which makes it so you don't give a shit when We Were Soldiers hits the battlefield and they start to get chewed into Karo syrup squib blood by blank ammunition.

We Were Soldiers dwells on the home lives of the soldiers as well, which seems to be surprisingly absent from most films of this genre. Too bad the soldier's wives are not much more memorable than the soldiers themselves. They are headed by Colonel Moore's wife Julie (played by a likeable, and amazingly still hot Madeline Stowe) that suggests an unusual hierarchy that the wives form around the rank of their husband. Instead of mining the situation for some Valley of the Dolls kind of drama, We Were Soldiers presents the soldiers wives as similarly vapid and "good". The most *uck* worthy scene involves a "whites only" laundromat and some cheesy speeches about racial equality. We Were Soldiers preaches a lot about civil rights, but in the end the black wife's husband is one of the first to get killed.

Despite this lack of character development, We Were Soldiers still scores in a few small, emotional moments. The soldiers' middle of the night deployment is quietly (if superficially) moving. The scene where the soldier's wives begin receiving the telegrams informing them their husbands are dead is placed unusually in the middle of the battle (presumably, they probably didn't receive the telegrams until a week later) but surprisingly doesn't grind the film to a halt.

We Were Soldiers is also uncharacteristically generous in its depictions of the North Vietnamese. Rather than letting the VC just be a bunch of small men in pajamas with AK's who set booby traps, the opening narration gives praise and honor to the soldiers of the NLF. We spend some time in the underground tunnels with the inscrutable Asian colonel (played by Don Duong) while he formulates his strategy. They end up being little more than weak attempts at subtitled Sun Tzu-isms like "Break their weak flank and then strangle them!" that Mel Gibson will roughly parrot in the next scene to demonstrate that the Ia Drang valley is a "matched battle of wills." To hammer the point home that "the Vietnamese were soldiers too," the films has one of them looks lovingly at a picture of his girl back in the rice paddy. This is a little bit before he charges Mel Gibson with a bayonet, and gets his brains blasted out of his helmet by a single M-16 bullet, which Mad Mel shoots from the hip (hey, it could be done...) They are, however, nice enough to mail the picture back to the girl.

The first three days of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley makes up the second half of the film. The battle scenes are generally well staged, but in the end are much flatter than similar movies of this genre. The movie tries, but in the end struggles to give a sense of the geography of the battle. While it doesn't resort to over-used techniques like the Saving Private Ryan patented under cranked "shaky cam", the battle scenes only break out of being just competent twice, when We Were Soldiers provides a few moments of particularly effective gore. Let's just say that I REALLY hope I don't have a run in with a white phosphorus grenade, and if I've got severe napalm burns, please don't pick me up by the legs...

The battle concludes with a hokey bayonet charge into the Viet Cong fortress (backed up by miniguns, of course). While they did repulse the Vietnamese attack, those same VC soldiers came back on the last day of battle and killed 155 Americans in the single bloodiest day of the Vietnam War. Both the real life Lt. Colonel Hal Moore and Joe Galloway give the authenticity of this adaptation a thumbs up. That unfortunately makes it harder to criticize hokey scenes like the one where a wounded soldier's last words are: "I'm glad I could give my life for my country." I mean, what kind of shit can you say when someone (supposedly) actually did that? I wish there was because, true or not, that scene makes me want to hit my head against a wall every time I see it.

We Were Soldiers may be the ultimate Rorschach Test of ones feelings about Vietnam. Many Vietnam veterans consider it the most accurate portrayal of "how the war really was." Certainly, it's easy to go overboard sniping at We Were Soldiers since it flies in the face of most of the popular imagery of the war. However, the army of 1965 was hardly the angry, demoralized force it would later become. Despite the politics that surround the discussion of this film, We Were Soldiers doesn't really commit itself either way. Of course there's the "sneaky civilian advisor" chain-smoking and delivering pessimistic bon mots like "They're lost." And I think every Vietnam film is required by the MPAA to include a scene with soldiers holding guns on each other. Still, the ultimate goal of We Were Soldiers is to show the sacrifices all soldiers and their families face, and that's a message I think few people would object to.

It's easy to see why veterans like We Were Soldiers. It's one of the few Vietnam movies that has something nice to say about soldiers. It's also easy to see why many of them hate Platoon. The dope smoking, peasant girl raping, civilian murdering grunts of that film are a world apart from the All-American boys portrayed in We Were Soldiers. Though the movie is empathetic to the stresses the soldiers are under, the lines of good and evil are much more blurred.

Platoon is the movie that put Oliver Stone on the map, for better or for worse depending on your point of view. His star has fallen a great deal in the public consciousness since then. It can easily be blamed on the fact that he hasn't turned in a good movie in a decade. Or perhaps the overt leftist politics of his films are passé in today's climate. Whatever the case, I've always found him an easier pill to swallow than Michael Moore, if only because his movies are more entertaining.

Based loosely on Stone's experience in Vietnam, Platoon follows the tour of one Private Chris Taylor (played by pre-drugs and hookers Charlie Sheen) as he goes on patrols, digs foxholes, and tries to survive in the jungle. Giving up his college deferment, Taylor joins the infantry mostly because he doesn't think it's right that "just the poor kids go to war." While I assume that in real life a bunch of draftees would probably kick his ass for such bullshit, rich boy posturing, these take it in stride.

The Platoon in question is a big dysfunctional family. In contrast to the family men and civil rights speeches of We Were Soldiers, the soldiers of Platoon are filled with racial tension and drug use. It is split into two factions, the hippy soldiers who smoke tons of weed and listen to Motown (their leader is the kindly Sgt. Elias, played as a Christ figure by future Jesus Willem Dafoe) and the rednecks who drink beer and listen to "The Okie from Muskogee", led by the fierce Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger.) When a new guy gets killed on his first patrol, there are no patriotic soliloquies. Instead, the body gets called a "lump of shit."

The dramatic conflict in Platoon is set up to have Private Taylor choose between the two "fathers" of Sgt. Elias (who symbolizes disillusioned idealism) and Sgt. Barnes (symbolizing the cold rage of the foot soldier). Through dope smoking, he bonds initially with the "good" father of Elias. But when several soldiers fall prey to booby traps or slit throats, he gets drawn into the cold-blooded mentality of Barnes. This results in a Vietnamese village getting burned down, old women getting shot in the head, and a cripple having his skull crushed with the butt of a shotgun. Being that this is an Oliver Stone film, the contest between Elias's idealism vs. Barnes "reality" (no really, he straight up says later "I am reality." Subtle...) is really not a contest at all. Though the movie throws some logical explanations towards the Barnes side of the debate, it clearly detests his actions.

The battle scenes in Platoon are much less expansive than those of We Were Soldiers. What they lack in scale, they make up for in claustrophobia. The Vietcong of Platoon are a much more nightmarish enemy that appears in the jungle out of nowhere. While the combat scenes of Platoon are effective within the film, they don't distinguish themselves within a field that includes the helicopter raid in Apocalypse Now and the excruciating sniper sequence of Full Metal Jacket. In all, they are more suspenseful than exhilarating. This is probably because the real dramatic thrust of the movie is more about the soldiers vs. themselves more than it is against the VC. Following (or perhaps starting) Stone's obsession with patricide, the dramatic conclusion of the film comes when Private Taylor finally frags the evil Sgt. Barnes. The movie is more obsessed with soldiers killing each other than it is with the enemy.

In the lead role, Charlie Sheen is clearly channeling his father's performance in Apocalypse Now, but his sappy narraration is more of distraction than a highlight. Sheen is convincing enough as the "fucking new guy" but less so as a hardened grunt. Willem Dafoe shows off surprising charisma as Sgt. Elias, though his death scene with him raising his hands to the sky to the tune of "Adiago" is one place where Stone should have dialed down the bombast. Tom Berenger lends some empathy to the scarred Sgt. Barnes, who could have been played as just a straight psychotic. The supporting cast is also memorable, not to mention a who's who of actors at the time (though he doesn't have a big role, see if you can spot a young Johnny Depp as a translator who later gets wounded.) My favorites are the Black Power quoting Junior (Reggie Johnson) and the clueless yet crazy Bunny (played by a young Kevin Dillon). Whether likable or detestable, the supporting characters seem more like characters than the caricatures of We Were Soldiers.

Overall, Platoon is the better of the two movies. This could be because my politics fall more to the left of the spectrum, or because it's a movie I grew up watching when I was a kid. Still, as unsubtle as the message of Platoon may be, it still hits home more often than not. Still while it doesn't blink from the atrocities committed during the war, its viewpoint isn't balanced. Not everyone who went to Vietnam came back a drug-addicted murderer. Their portrayal in We Were Soldiers isn't balanced either, but after years of the "dark Vietnam movie", it's also somewhat refreshing. Which one you like more depends on whether you believe war makes men into heroes or monsters.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave, I think you can make the case that M*A*S*H (1970) was the first cynical Vietnam war movie. Yeah, I know it was set in Korea, but the characters were transplants out of the '60s. The film was made during our so-called sexual revolution, and released at the height of antiwar sentiment in the US. Clearly a product of its time.

6:05 AM  
Anonymous tx said...

Thank you sir. An interesting read indeed.

4:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think a true test of character involves a battle within oneself. The courageous Mel Gibson seemed to be naturally courageous, while still something to be praised, not as much as someone who is afraid but fights through that. The characters of Platoon showed much more depth and battle going on inside themselves. It got down to the core of good vs evil and how one decides that for themselves. Though I agree it had a leftist approach, it showed how the mentality of Sgt. Barnes could evolve.

I also agree that this film should not be taken as something that represents the Vietnam War in a whole, but nothing says you should. Things like this did happen though, and these stories are the truly courageous and entertaining ones.

Great critique,

1:44 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Your bias bleeds through like someone envious that they could never make a film like this one. Give me a break, go do something else.

1:36 AM  
Blogger George Allen said...

Your bias bleeds through like someone envious that they could never make a film like this one. Give me a break, go do something else.

1:38 AM  

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