I can still remember the first time I saw Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War epic, Platoon, in a cinema in South Carolina during the summer of 1986.
At that time, the men who had served in the war were still mostly in their late thirties and early forties. The Vietnam War was as recent to the present as the first term of George H.W. Bush, and the US-led invasion of Iraq, are recent to us today.
I was only a few weeks away from turning eighteen when I watched Platoon that afternoon. Born in 1968, I was too young to recall the Vietnam War, but I had grown up in its shadow. The Vietnam War was a constant cultural reference point—kind of like the war in Iraq is now.
Platoon was not the first movie to feature the Vietnam War; but most of the previous efforts in this regard had turned out badly. Apocalypse Now (1979) was simply weird, and completely lacking realism. The Deer Hunter (1978) was depressing and nihilistic.
Platoon was the first major film that addressed the Vietnam War in a manner that was realistic and artistically engaging. This movie didn’t flinch from the dark side of the conflict; but this was no self-indulgent wallow in the gloom. There are characters in this movie worth knowing, and the film ends on a redemptive note.
I found the movie powerful in 1986, but I wasn’t quite sure why. At the age of eighteen, I really had no idea of the difficult choices that the real world requires of us all: between right and wrong, idealism and pragmatism, serving others and serving oneself.
This theme is present throughout the film, but it’s encapsulated in the above scene, “I am Reality”. That famous line from Sgt. Barnes:
“There’s the way it oughta be, and there’s the way it is.”
This line went over my head on that teenage summer afternoon almost thirty-four years ago. All teens see the world, and themselves, in absolute, black-and-white terms. I was no exception.
I rewatched the movie a few nights ago. At the age of fifty-one, I understand the significance of Sgt. Barnes’s line, and how the real world is many shades of gray.
And this—to me, at least—is what the movie is all about. This is why Platoon will continue to be a classic, long after the Vietnam War generation (and we, their children), have passed into history.