Two distinctly American film genres are the Western and the Vietnam War film. My approach to Westerns has been to review them as a whole, comparing them to each other and figuring out what is good and bad about the genre. I’ll be taking a similar approach to Vietnam movies, so consider this Part 1 of 3 in the AFI Vietnam Series.
Politics, Politics, Politics!
People who share some of my political views often get labeled as the “blame America first crowd” by various demagogues who hope to make us seem like something other than regular Americans and therefore easy to dismiss and mock. This usually comes after foreign policy discussions of how the US has supported dictators and the role we’ve played in everything from funding antidemocratic militias to drawing conflict-causing borders to fighting illegal wars. You always know that you’ve won the argument when their only response is “Why do you blame America for everything?”
Buried somewhere in that platitude is a salient point. There are plenty of bad things and bad people in the world that have nothing to do with us. So why are we so eager to jump on the crimes of the US rather than other governments that have committed similar, often worse, crimes?
One of the things that differentiates the US from other countries is that to believe its mythology is to necessarily ignore its atrocities, and we’ve never really confronted our past. We still have yet to come to grips with the long term effects of slavery, the near-eradication of the American Indians, McCarthyism, and others. These are entirely home-grown issues that we have yet to resolve, and rather than “blaming America first,” there is no one else to blame. This denial unavoidably comes with us wherever we go. That’s what makes the US different: we preemptively believe that we are right, then whitewash the past when we are wrong because we feel that, no matter the outcome, our motives are always unimpeachable.
The fact is that we as a country were traumatized by the Vietnam War, but our national mythology prevents us from admitting any guilt. Platoon is the best film that sympathizes with our soldiers while condemning our military’s actions.
Winning Isn’t Everything – If Fact, Sometimes It Isn’t Anything
A common notion was that, though the war was tragic in terms of lives lost, we didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. Movies reflected a similar view – the war was just unfortunate, we shouldn’t have gone, the cost was too great, etc. Very few people actually admitted that we committed serious crimes over there, some at the top level (secret wars in Cambodia and Laos, lies about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident) and some at the ground level (executing civilians, use of Agent Orange).
Of the three Vietnam films on the list (the others being Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter), this is the only one that suggests that the war was something other than just unfortunate. Oliver Stone’s view is that the war took everything that was happening in America at the time, multiplied it by 100 and gave it a gun.
When we go to war, all of the problems we face as a society and as individuals only get exacerbated. While we want to take the best of us to battle to fight for our beliefs, we can’t avoid taking the worst of us at the same time.
Oliver Stone is a divisive figure, and a lot of the time he really does talk out of his ass. Even his non-controversial movies are controversially uncontroversial. But when he’s speaking from experience, be it about the war, finance or drug addiction, he finds his stride. Platoon is largely based on his own service in Vietnam, with Charlie Sheen reenacting several of Stone’s own story of being a rich kid who specifically requests combat duty because he feels the draft is unfair. On the way he encounters people from all stripes of American society: hippies, rednecks, black radicals, white racists, disciplined soldiers and psychotic killers. Each has their own story, and each finds their fate in Vietnam, one way or another.
There are some flaws with Platoon, none of which are dealbreakers but which are worth highlighting. The movie is supposed to be a diary that tells some of the more eventful moments of a year in Vietnam, but the passage of time is difficult to read. When someone “can’t take it anymore,” we don’t necessarily know how long they’ve been there or what the final straw was.
The only big problem in Platoon is that the people that Sheen’s character encounters are sometimes a bit too metaphorical, and it is hard to sympathize with someone who is a symbol and not an individual. The people-as-metaphors effect also means that we can sometimes see their fate coming well before it happens. I’m not against using characters as metaphors, but it seems that the metaphor is most powerful when fully realized after the character meets his fate, not before.
Other Vietnam Movies
Of the three Vietnam films on the AFI list, Platoon is the most focused on life on the ground in Vietnam. In fact, the film begins with Sheen arriving and ends with him departing, so that the entire film takes place during his year at war. Apocalypse Now is a psychological horror that puts Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in a modern setting; it is much more about the human condition than Vietnam specifically. The Deer Hunter is primarily about life before and after the war and how it changes a person. Very little screen time is devoted to the war itself (at 183 minutes in length, that’s relatively speaking). Each approach is completely valid and necessary in understanding this complex chapter of American history.
Comments: Vietnam had a tremendous effect on our psyche and identity, almost as much as our expansion westward did. The decline of the Western happened around the same time as the end of the Vietnam war; perhaps we were less enamored in victory and more concerned with remembering tragedy.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Yes. Characterization is at times clumsy, but an excellent analysis of the effects of the war on our nation’s psyche.
Inspired: There were a lot of 80s movies that took their cues from Platoon, but I wish it had inspired more jingoistic movies like Black Hawk Down to be more introspective.
Next Week: #82 Giant
Last Week: #84 Fargo
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