It's really hard to watch a Vietnam movie after seeing Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola's journey through the madness of war is just so....gripping, that it becomes difficult to judge later movies on the subject (and we won't even mention previous films. Green Berets, anybody?).
So, it is quite an accomplishment on the part of director Oliver Stone that Platoon stands out as a film of great merit. It's gritty, dirty, honest, unrelenting, and (most importantly) completely lacking in trite bullshit. Nobody gets away innocent, or becomes the "hero" here. That doesn't happen in war.
Platoon opens on Chris Taylor (Charle Sheen) arriving in Vietnam. Immediately, we are given hints of what is to come. Body bags, and frazzled soldiers shouting expletives at the "fresh meat." The scene is dusty, dirty, but Taylor looks fairly clean... Something in the air, however, says that won't last for long.
He's assigned to Bravo Company, 25th Infantry. As it must be with all war films (and most wars, I'm sure), the group is about as diverse as you can get. Exemplifying this point is the rivalry between two sergeants: Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). Elias is the nice guy, the hippie forced to fight, while war has driven Barnes to be nearly sociopathic. During the brief pauses in fighting, when the boys are allowed some recreation time, the platoon divides. Barnes takes the good ol' boys, who drink beer and talk trash, and Elias smokes pot with the dreamers and the once-innocent.
Many of the characters here are meant more as symbols than anything else. Elias and Barnes are the most ready examples. They are Good and Evil, respectively, though neither man is completely saint or devil. Taylor acts as the Active Narrator, a David Copperfield character who is meant to comment on the action, and takes part in it, but is never more interesting than his supporting cast. Stone based Platoon on his own experiences in Vietnam, and it only appropriate that his character, Taylor, be the Observer. Whenever Taylor has a voice-over, it's Stone talking.
Stone's directoral hand here is invisible. It's difficult to step back and say "Wow, that was a great shot!" That, perhaps, is the best compliment I can give to him. The action scenes are harsh and unrelenting. Nothing is held back (not that Stone's known for being restrained), everything is shown. He never allows the proceedings to become predictable. Even if a certain plot point seems obvious, when it will happen and the ramifications that will entail never are.
Holding the whole thing together is the fantastic cast. Notable performances are given by Dafoe, Berenger, and Keith David (as the jovial soldier King). A step down, but no worse for it are John C. McGinley (who some may recognize from Office Space as one of the two Bobs), Kevin Dillon, and Reggie Johnson. Sheen struggles to hold his own, but his performance does not need to be great...it merely has to keep things moving. Look for Johnny Depp in an early role.
Oliver Stone has perhaps made the best movie that is specifically about Vietnam. This is not to say, however, that he has topped Apocalypse Now. Apocalypse Now could have been set in many different wars and still have portrayed the insanity of it all effectively. Vietnam was, perhaps, the best time to set it in, though. Still, I must highly recommend Platoon. Stone has done an exemplary job, one that should be appreciated by many.