Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Platoon (1986)
Studio Line: MGM - The first casaulty of war is innocence.

Winner of four Academy Awards including Best Picture, and based on the first-hand experience of Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone, Platoon is powerful, intense and starkly brutal. "Harrowingly realistic and completely convincing" (Leonard Maltin), it is "a dark, unforgettable memorial" (The Washington Post) to every soldier whose innocence was lost in the war-torn jungles of Vietnam.

Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is a young naïve American who, upon his arrival in Vietnam, quickly discovers that he must do battle not only with the Viet Cong, but also with the gnawing fear, physical exhaustion and intense anger growing within him. While his two commanding officers (Oscar-nominated Tom Berenger and William Dafoe) draw a fine line between the war they wage against the enemy and the one they fight with each other, the conflict, chaos and hatred permeate Taylor, suffocating his realities and numbing his feelings to man's highest value…life.

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, John C. McGinley, Johnny Depp
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Film Editing; Best Sound. Nominated for Best Screenplay-Oliver Stone; Best Supporting Actor-Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe; Best Cinematography, 1987.
Box Office: Budget: $6 million. Gross: $137.963 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, Spanish Dolby Surround; subtitles Spanish, French; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 32 chapters; rated R; 120 min.; $19.98; street date 8/15/00.
Supplements: Collectible Booklet; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - George Delerue, Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B/D-

When Platoon hit my local theater in early 1987, it caused an immediate reaction. The film did enormous business in my area (granted, it only played at one theater in Charlottesville, Virginia, so that wasn't tough) and it really impressed the people who saw it. I recall all of the buzz about what an intense and harrowing experience the film provided.

My friends and I checked it out one evening, and I found myself rather unimpressed. To be sure, the movie had its moments, but overall the whole seemed like less than the sum of its parts. There was something lacking in the total picture, I felt.

And I still pretty much feel that way. I've seen Platoon at least twice since 1987 - I also rented the laserdisc about four years ago - and it remains a moderately compelling but inconsistent film.

A lot of that stems from the usual problem I have with Oliver Stone's movies: the guy isn't exactly subtle. Although many regard the film as the most honest and intense made about the war in Vietnam, I think Stone's agenda interferes with that basic truthfulness. In a nutshell, he tries too hard to make the events perfectly emblematic of the conflicts involved with that dispute.

Stone neatly gives us "good" in the character of Elias (Willem Dafoe, apparently practicing to play Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ) and "evil" through Barnes (Tom Berenger). These two are constantly at each other, and guess who wins? Well, I won't say, since it might spoil it. Actually, that question seems slightly up in the air, since the film largely acts as a contest between the two for the "soul" of new recruit Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), who behaves as the "everyman" in the troop, and therefore represents the basic thoughts and desires of the US as a whole.

Or something like that. Platoon skitters about quite a lot and it's hard to pin down much of the time. On one hand, it seems to avoid a coherent narrative, which seems logical in that a confused, random sequence of events might best encapsulate the nature of the war. On the other, it goes to pains to set up this aforementioned morality play, and seems a bit stilted at times as it works its way through this plot.

Perhaps my opinion of Platoon remains affected by my initial anticipation. After all of the acclaim that's come its way, I still expect it to be the most harrowing war experience shown on film, and I simply don't think it comes close; I'd take the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan or Apocalypse Now over any here, and though it portrays no actual fighting, I still think Sophie's Choice provides the most devastating war-related production I've seen. That shouldn't take away from the effectiveness of Platoon, but it does, at least to me; since it's supposed to exceed all comers and doesn't, I can't help but think less of it.

Nonetheless, it is a fairly well-crafted and executed movie. The characters are fairly thinly-drawn, even among the bigger roles, but the actors flesh them out relatively well. Berenger deserves particular notice as the nasty and cruel Barnes; he doesn't provide much humanity in the part, but he makes the role effectively evil. Dafoe is a little too beatific as Elias, but he still seems well-portrayed, and Sheen offers some acceptably decent work in his pivotal role.

Ultimately, I think Platoon remains a solid film that does a fairly good job of portraying the horrors of war, but I continue to feel somewhat underwhelmed by it. Throughout much of the movie, I felt like I was supposed to be awed and devastated but those impressions never actually occurred. In the end, I'd place it in the middle of the famous Vietnam films; it doesn't approach the greatness of Apocalypse Now (the first two-thirds of that film, at least) but it easily surpasses the dullness and pretentiousness of the radically overrated Deer Hunter.

The DVD:

Platoon appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although it looks rough at the start, the vast majority of Platoon presents a very strong picture.

One consistent positive comes from the image's sharpness, which seems excellent throughout the movie. It always appeared crisp and well-defined, and I noticed no signs of softness at any point. This occurs with virtually no edge enhancement, as I discerned a complete lack of moiré effects or jagged edges.

The print itself caused a few problems. As I alluded, some of the early parts of the movie show flaws; I noticed scratches, speckles, and a few hairs. Grain was limited to only a few scenes, but appeared extremely heavy at those times. Oddly, however, once we get about a fourth of the way through the film, almost all of the flaws disappear for the most part. They'll crop up from time to time, with a tiny amount of speckling and at least one major hair, but they don't compare with the dirtiness I saw earlier in the picture.

Colors tend to be fairly subdued, but they looked very natural and well-saturated. Other than some of the reddish tones in the "Feel Good Cave" - which could come across as a bit murky and heavy - hues seemed accurate and precise. Black levels appeared appropriately dark, but shadow detail was a minor weakness, in large part due to the apparent use of "day for night" photography at times. The definition of low-light scenes looked inconsistent, as some shots appeared quite clear but others became excessively thick and opaque. As with the print flaws, it's another concern that gradually improves as the film progresses. The issues related to the debris in the image and the shadow detail caused me to lower my grade to a "B", but be advised that much of the movie looks a lot better than that; had the first half been as strong as the second, this picture definitely would have entered "A" territory.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Platoon offers similarly inconsistent pleasures, though it works fairly well overall. On the positive side is the film's soundfield, which seems surprisingly active for a movie from 1986. The front speakers are used to good effect, with a lot of action popping up in all three channels. The rears also get much usage. Though their general demeanor is to reinforce the front spectrum, the surrounds still add a nicely involving dimension and also provide a fair amount of unique audio; the latter generally regards some showy helicopter effects but also encompasses other elements. I found the mix to be a little too "speaker specific" at times, and it didn't blend especially well, but for its age, it seemed well above average.

Unfortunately, the quality of the sound caused some concerns. In general, it felt as though the dynamic range was limited, and when the audio wanted to go above or below a certain point, it appeared rough and thick. Dialogue displayed the most problems; although much of the speech was relatively natural, a great deal came across as flat and harsh. Intelligibility remained fairly strong, however; the only times I had trouble understanding dialogue related to the cacophony of the situation.

Effects seemed similarly restricted. Due to the many explosions we hear, there's a mild amount of distortion from this track, and the high end never seemed as crisp or clear as it should. Bass also was present but a bit insubstantial; admittedly, I don't expect Haunting quality low end from a 14-year-old track, but I thought it could have been stronger. Only Georges Delerue's haunting score emerges from the mix unscathed; it appeared pretty clean and smooth and seemed to replicate the music well. Platoon earned its "B" through the quality of the score and the ambition of the mix, but the reproduction of speech and effects seemed slightly disappointing.

Not as bad as the paucity of extras we find, however. Platoon continues that time-honored trend found among most DVDs for Best Picture winners: it offers almost no supplements. That's bad enough under regular circumstances, but this one becomes especially annoying for two reasons. First, as with both One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, Platoon appeared as a lovely and extras-packed laserdisc special edition. None of the supplements for those first two films ever made their DVD releases.

However, the second factor that exacerbates my irritation stems from the fact that unlike the other two I mentioned, Platoon enjoyed a much more deluxe release on a prior DVD. Live Entertainment put out their disc in 1998 and it included many of the LD's extras; it had two audio commentaries and a roughly 50-minute documentary.

Many of MGM's re-releases of previously issued properties they've acquired simply duplicate the old DVDs; that seems to be the case for The Graduate and The Usual Suspects, among others. The Live DVD of Platoon didn't offer a 16X9 transfer, but I'd have been happy to take that drawback if it'd meant the inclusion of the supplements. I don't know why MGM failed to include the existing extras; perhaps there were rights questions that made it impractical or impossible. Whatever the case, it seems very disappointing.

So what does this DVD offer? Not much. We find just the film's theatrical trailer plus a nice booklet with production notes. On a small positive note, the latter runs for eight pages, just like the wonderful MGM booklets of yore. Over the last few months, they've moved largely to four-page texts. While these still are some of the best on the market, they aren't as detailed as the longer booklets, so here's hoping Platoon marks a return to form in that department, even if it lacks so many already-existing extras.

The inclusion of those supplements would have made me more enthusiastic about the Platoon DVD. As it stands, I don't feel very strongly about it. I continue to find the movie intermittently compelling but a bit muddled; it simply never has lived up to its hype. The DVD provides flawed but usually very good picture and sound, though it features almost no extras. Platoon deserves a rental from fans of the genre, and if MGM ever decide to reissue the title with the full complement of materials, a purchase might then be in order; although I'm not wild about the film itself, such a package would be compelling enough for me to add it to my collection.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top