Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Two by Oliver Stone: 'Platoon' and 'Born on the Fourth of July'



In an effort to reinvigorate my much-backseated blogging, a retrospective on two important Vietnam movies. Sort of coinciding with Memorial Day.

Oliver Stone's sophomore effort, "Platoon," came out on Christmas 1986 and went on to earn Stone a Best Director Oscar, while the film won Best Picture. It came out on the heels of his first directorial feature, "Salvador" (also 1986), and, along with his writing credits "Midnight Express" and "Scarface," cemented him as Hollywood's next big player. "Platoon," along with "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989), presented him as an artist intimately concerned with and troubled by the Vietnam War. This extends not only to what it was like to fight it, but what its long-term effects are for our political and cultural societies.

When you look at his later films -- "JFK" (1991) and "Nixon" (1995) in particular -- they are often very concerned with how Vietnam happened and why it happened. But before he turned outward to the political side of it, he turned inward to look at the emotional side of it. His two "combat features" are essentially morality plays about the loss of innocence. Indeed, Vietnam becomes the site where America itself loses its innocence and its sense of dominance. It becomes a site where pride and physicality is actively questioned. What we see in "Platoon" is an archetypal good-and-evil set up where Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger play two surrogate fathers to Charlie Sheen's Private Taylor; the former is the "beneficial" guiding father, and the latter is the violent, corrupt father. One is a gentler masculinity of nurturing and logic, the other a hardened masculinity of aggression and revenge.

The film charts Sheen's moral decline, first painting him as a volunteer who thinks he can do good in the war, and then gradually detailing his revelation that no good can come of this war before he himself succumbs to its violent impulses and its unregulated morality. "Platoon" is remarkable for its realistically-staged combat, where the camera sits secure and the editing is very pronounced. There are little of Stone's eccentricities; it's an almost cold direction, where the faces of the platoon members offer little in the way of comfort.

"Born on the Fourth of July," on the other hand, is more of an overt memorial. Tom Cruise's soldier also believes being a marine will let him do great service for his country, until he accidentally kills a fellow soldier and loses the use of both of his legs. While he believes he will become a hardened male akin to what his parents want him to be, war actually castrates him; he loses his ability to "be a man." The film is shot in many warm, orange palettes and more extreme angles shot from below, emphasizing the stature of various figures as Cruise's paraplegic is looked down on and visually diminished as the film goes on. While "Fourth" is also about a loss of innocence, it is much more physical than spiritual.

Oliver Stone was a Vietnam veteran himself before turning to Hollywood. We can see in "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth" a desire to excise what he had seen. In that regard, you can consider them semi-autobiographical if not semi-journalistic. Even "Born" seems autobiographical in its construction of how war mutilates innocence, even if Stone is here choosing a physical rather than mental representation of that mutilation (he himself is not a paraplegic, but it's not hard to imagine him standing in for much of the critical discourse the film mounts).

These films actually undo some of the conventions of combat films. If we imagine going to war as "making a man out of you," "Born on the Fourth of July" is actually about unbecoming a man and needing to find an alternative for socially constructed forms of masculinity. His castration and loss of ability to perform sexually shows him go from a boy to a man and back to this childlike male who must grow again into a "new male" marked by his wounds.

"Platoon" works similarly - we imagine platoon movies to show the fellowship and coming together of disparate men into a singular, working ideology. The film stripes any semblance of community. Despite a scene early on where the men share pot and get high together, they never act like friends. By the end of the film, almost all of them are dead, they're divided based on the ideologies and philosophies of the various commanders, and most of the commanding officers are also dead. We expect Taylor to be integrated, but the end of the film leaves us with him as an unintegrated man. He is alone, as he was in the beginning, and also devastated by the violence around him.

If World War II narrative traditions create a fantasy of what combat does to create communities of men, Stone's two films unmake that fantasy.

The fact that most of his films are set in the 1960s and early 1970s mark him as a filmmaker absorbed by the trauma of the Vietnam War, extending into the paranoid discourses of conspiracy in "JFK" and "Nixon." They represent a man trying to grasp sense at what he conceives as the senseless.

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