Oliver Stone’s answer to probably every John Wayne war film ever made.
Oliver Stone’s Platoon, about a group of American infantrymen in Vietnam between 1967 and 1968, is the first Hollywood film about this country’s Southeast Asian adventure that’s just a war movie—and, weirdly, its straightforward genre-picture intensity makes all the other film treatments of the subject look evasive and superficial. Even leaving aside the recently popular P.O.W.-rescue movies with Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, which are simply macho pulp in exotic settings, Milton Caniff on steroids, American movies haven’t done very well by the horrors of Vietnam and Cambodia. All the serious films about Southeast Asia of the past ten years have been so intent on “coming to terms” with the experience that they’ve barely bothered to represent it. For all the virtues of Apocalypse Now, no one could possibly have learned anything about Vietnam from it. Coppola staged the war as a psychedelic opera—jungles bursting into flames with the Doors’ sinister “The End” on the soundtrack, copters swooping out of the sky to the music of “Ride of the Valkyries”—and the grandiose style robbed the subject of its specificity. Coppola was so caught up in creating his huge metaphoric vision of chaos (derived, in just about equal parts, from Heart of Darkness and Michael Herr’s Dispatches) that he seemed not to notice the inanity of the movie’s subtext: that the war could have been won if our military leaders weren’t so inept and our soldiers so stoned, if only we Americans weren’t so stupid and spiritually empty.
Michael Cimino’s Oscar-winner, The Deer Hunter, also featured a hallucinated Vietnam: the war was a bad dream that his heroes, a bunch of regular-guy Pennsylvania factory workers, couldn’t wake up from. Cimino meant to contrast the supposed purity of traditional American values with the war’s hellish suspension of moral categories, and he wasn’t fussy about how he defined his terms—not only idealizing the “clean” sportsmanship of the heroes’ deer-hunting expeditions, but also inventing a Russian-roulette torture by the group’s Vietnamese captors. The Deer Hunter was as overblown as Apocalypse Now, but in a different register, like an opera scored by Springsteen. It had a heavy, plodding spirit, a populist ethos verging (probably without meaning to) on the demagogic, and a defeated air that somehow managed to congratulate us on our wounded innocence, our stunned simplicity. Neither of those big-deal movies was about Vietnam at all—they were about the shape the war took in our imaginations (which is, perhaps, why they were both so muddled and unresolved). But the war was, of course, more than a bad trip, as Coppola would have it, or a child’s nightmare, as in Cimino. Platoon gives Vietnam back some of its reality.