[Platoon (1986), directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, and Willem Dafoe. Won an Academy Award for Best Picture. This review was written for some non-Marxist friends circa February 1987. They thought this review was "too extreme".]
1. Platoon claims to be a movie presenting the outlook of the average U.S. infantry soldier who fought in Vietnam. I would agree that it does present this point of view quite accurately. This is both its strength, and its fatal weakness.
2. Given this point of view, the movie could only be an accurate and truthful picture of the Vietnam War if the point of view of the average U.S. soldier reflected the true situation. It did not. It could not.
3. Despite what they may have learned through bitter personal experience, the average point of view of soldiers in an imperialist army is inevitably still a reflection—to one degree or another—of the prevailing ideas in their own country. This includes a mountain of ideological baggage characteristic of capitalism today, such as:
These attitudes were all too clear among the soldiers portrayed in the movie—even (and this is my point), to a large degree, among the "good guys", those uncomfortable with the extreme attitudes and behavior of the "bad guys".
4. These attitudes were (and are) whipped up all the more within the military. In fact it would be impossible for the U.S. to fight wars such as in Vietnam at all without such an ideological underpinning. The reactionaries ("hawks", "right wingers") in the military, in the government and in society in general are aware of this. Only the liberals are unable to understand the reality that in a Vietnam-type war, the people are the enemy of America, and must be dehumanized so that they can be subjugated or killed en masse.
5. The reason that the people are the enemy in a Vietnam-type war, is that it was a "people's war"—a war of the people of Vietnam against the U.S. imperialists and their local stooges. The only way for an imperialist army to fight against a people's war is to engage in genocide, to one degree or another, against that people. This is the simple truth of the matter, the truth of the war, that you will never find in movies such as Platoon. (This is why Platoon is essentially a big lie, despite its "gritty realism".)
You see, the bad guys in Platoon understood something very basic that the "good guys" did not: The Vietnamese people were against them. Not just the NVA and the Viet Cong; but the whole people, including the women and children. If you thought it was all right to kill the men, but not the women and the children, then you were stupid, because they were all trying to kill you!
To be logical and consistent in this situation, the American soldiers had to either agree that all Vietnamese were the enemy and should be terrorized and killed, or that none of them were the enemy, that none should be killed (including NVA and Viet Cong), and that the U.S. had no right being over there whatsoever.
There were American soldiers who came to adopt this latter position, though none of them are portrayed in Platoon. Only the Lt. Calleys and the average grunts are portrayed, not the really progressive U.S. soldiers who were refusing to go out on patrol, refusing to shoot any Vietnamese, and were—if they were resorting to any violence at all—directing it at their own officers (fraggings, etc.). It is true that during most of the war, these were a very small number, but by the end they were by no means negligible. One of the major reasons the U.S. finally pulled out of Vietnam, was that their own army was starting to fall to pieces as an effective fighting force.
It is also true that the "hero" of the movie does shoot the most repulsive character, the scarred U.S. sergeant. But even here, it was primarily an act of revenge for the killing of the "good" hippy sergeant. Did the hero think to do this after the genocidal killings of Vietnamese peasants in the village? No. He was upset, but they were "only" Vietnamese after all. Did he think to also shoot the Lieutenant and Captain who were ordering them out into the field to kill "gooks" in the first place? No. (To my mind even the most progressive U.S. soldiers in this movie are also repulsive.)
By presenting only the views of the average U.S. soldier and the views of the reactionary genocidal U.S. soldiers, Platoon lies again, and even presents an unfair picture of the U.S. soldiers as a whole, let alone of the whole war.
6. The implicit message of Platoon is not that the U.S. should not have been in Vietnam at all, but rather that there were awful "excesses", and terrible things done in the course of the war which "we" should not have done. It would have presumably been alright to have fought a "clean" war (shooting only "enemy" soldiers, not burning villages, raping women, etc.).
As against this:
7. Platoon does not, cannot, explain why My Lai type genocide happened in Vietnam, and had to happen. It seems instead to present the liberal illusion that inexplicable terrible aberrations happened over there, and that the whole war was somehow a terrible aberration from the workings of "American democracy". In reality, Vietnam was a concentrated expression of what "American democracy" really means on an international scale. It is what "American democracy" always amounts to, when push comes to shove.
8. I said above that the movie is from the point of view of the Americans. Think about what that means.
Not only is the movie from the point of view of the average American soldier; we learn to know and empathize with American soldiers only. It is true we see some Vietnamese children crying as their mother is killed by the U.S. soldiers. But no Vietnamese person in this movie has a name or a personality.
Even from the point of view of the movie makers, let alone from that of the more reactionary characters in it, the Vietnamese people are being subtly dehumanized. Because we are not allowed to get to know them we find it hard to care for them as much as we do the Americans. The words for this sort of thing are racism and national chauvinism.
There is no way you can have a truthful, honest movie about Vietnam which does not itself really think of Vietnamese as people, and portray them as such.
Let's think of an analogy. Suppose some renegade Russian film maker makes a movie about the Afghanistan War. This is not an officially approved "red berret's" type of thing, where the Russian soldiers are glorious liberators, but rather an "anti-war" movie. But suppose it focuses not on the Afghan people, and their terrible suffering, but on the problems of the "poor Soviet soldiers". We get to know them, and their difficulties; their fears, attitudes, personalities, even disagreements. We see them shooting a few "natives", but we only get to know them. Even if this movie played a progressive role in the Soviet Union (as well it might), could it really be a "good" movie, a true and accurate picture of the Afghanistan War? No way. Despite whatever strengths it might have, it would be from a chauvinist perspective. And this is something that would be very obvious to critics in the West.
If you think of the movie Platoon changed into an Afghanistan War movie, the American soldiers becoming Russian soldiers, the Vietnamese becoming Afghans, but everything else remaining the same, you may begin to see why I dislike Platoon so much. I don't want to see imperialist armies humanized, and the people they are terrorizing and killing dehumanized. It is a crime to portray things that way. It is turning things completely upside down.
9. Is Platoon a progressive movie? Well, what is progressive depends upon the situation at the time.
At the present time we are in a quite reactionary period, when the ruling class is trying to revise history and make us forget the lessons of Vietnam, and in particular the main lesson learned by the American people—that "we" should never have been over there in the first place. (Unfortunately not very many people in this country learned the class lesson—that the rulers of the country, and the people of this country do not form a "we"; that the bourgeoisie and the people have incompatible interests.) This is the epoch of Reagan and Rambo, when reactionaries are trying to change the moral of the Vietnam War to something like: "We didn't win, because we didn't go all out. We tried to fight the war with one hand tied behind our backs. Next time we can't let the doves and liberals keep us from smashing the commies."
Platoon is not in keeping with this reactionary line. As I claimed above, it takes a liberal line. The fact that this liberal dovish line is really impossible in practice, and ultimately an illusion, and in itself still within the overall viewpoint of the imperialists, does not keep it from being an obstacle to the reactionaries (realist imperialists).
Thus, to a degree, I will admit that Platoon can and is playing a mildly progressive role. But it is a sad commentary indeed that a movie still from the imperialist perspective can play a progressive role today. It shows how backward the American people's thinking really is when liberal, illusionist imperialism can be considered the least bit progressive.
But admitting that Platoon is playing a mildly progressive role, is not the same as applauding it. I think that anyone seriously thinking about the movie in a moral or political way should be encouraged to see its drastic limitations. We should break down some of the illusions and attack some of the lies which Platoon pushes.
Fifteen years ago a movie like Platoon probably would have been vilified by the rudimentary revolutionary movement that existed then, and perhaps even by a section of the anti-war movement. It would have been far clearer to many where it was really coming from. Fifteen years ago I might even have suspected that it was a conscious attempt to keep the anti-war movement within the imperialist fold. But today the revolutionary movement in this country has nearly disappeared. (It will make a comeback, however! Times change!) Today even objecting to Rambo-type war-mongering is considered in some quarters enough to make you a left-winger.
For my part, I long for the day when imperialists don't dare put out Rambo garbage, and even Platoon-like things will be seen for what they are. When people develop a class consciousness and basic understanding of what imperialism is, then movies like this will be seen as just another form of imperialist apologetics.
10. No completely truthful and accurate movie about the Vietnam War—or any other social question—has ever been made by bourgeois Hollywood producers, and never will be. Even if they are not consciously lying (which they do most of the time), they are still presenting their own bourgeois outlook, which encompasses many very basic lies and disgusting attitudes.
The "Newsreel" political collective produced a number of short documentary movies about the Vietnam War which despite weaknesses (technical and political) were nevertheless generally pretty truthful. But if you want to see a lavish (expensive) Hollywood-style production of a really good and accurate movie about Vietnam, you will have to wait until after the revolution.
Note: In April, 2002, a correspondent by the name of "Pip" sent me a criticism of the above review. His letter, with my replies interspersed, is available here.