The two greatest Vietnam movies by two of the greatest war filmmakers. Head to head, in one review. I had the good luck of seeing both in High Def this week: Full Metal Jacket on HBOHD and Platoon on Comcast HD On Demand. Let's break each movie down.
I should remind everyone that this film won on Oscar for Best Picture, therefore, it almost automatically gets the label of "overrated." But, watching it again 21 years later, it is unquestionably a very good movie. Despite being hung up in the 60s and being a conspiracist, Oliver Stone is one of the last 20 years' top 5 filmmakers and this movie reflects his abilities.
Platoon spends all of its time out in the warzone, and although Charlie Sheen is the protagonist, the real story is between the two sergeants played by Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger. After Berenger's character massacres Vietnamese in a village, Dafoe and Berenger go toe to toe. Those two are the interesting aspect of the film. Charlie Sheen's transition from wide-eyed cornfed boy to heartless killer in the field is just a bit too cliche.
Platoon has a great cast. A lot of these guys went on to become bigger actors after this, not the least of which is Forrest Whitaker, who, before this film, mostly played high school football players in films. And of course Johnny Depp, who I barely recognized. His notable contribution to the world since this film is becoming an anti-American expatriate who lives in France. Nice.
There's really not much to complain about with the filmmaking. Stone is a brilliant filmmaker. It has its wartime cliches thrown in a bit much, but the story is effective and flows well.
I guess my main problem is that there isn't much redemption for the characters in this movie. As Keith David gets on a helicopter, he says something like "I'm going to be living the high life back in the real world, see you suckers!" Sadly, we know a lot of Vietnam vets suffer from PTSD and were disowned by an anti-war society upon arriving home. And I feel like Stone, having come out of it pretty well, was somehow trying to rub the soldiers' faces in it with this little allusion to how it turned out for them when they came home. Even though he fought in this war, I just don't think Stone is very respectful to sacrifice in this movie, even though he later went on to make Born on the Fourth of July.
Platoon is an original script by Stone; therefore, it's solely a creation of Stone's mind. Stone, as we know, is a fanatic 60s peace-movement filmmaker. Again, great film, but this being Stone's "semi-autobiographical" record of Vietnam, so I don't think it should be taken as historical record.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
If you've ever read this blog before, you know I'm a Kubrick fan boy. In my opinion, he's the greatest filmmaker ever, and I'm shocked that this is only a "three star movie" according to my cable guide. FMJ, like Platoon, is easily a four star movie.
That said, this film has problems that are unique to Kubrick.
It's often said that this film is two films. That is not what Kubrick intended. Not at all.
His intention was to break you down, break the film goer down, just like basic training breaks down recruits. Why do you think he shows all of those scenes of them marching, singing? The repetition is to make you feel the monotony of basic training. Like Gomer Pyle, we all start off laughing at the drill sergeant (R. Lee Ermey). I don't know about you, but I find his initial "you are the scum of the earth" rant to be absolutely hilarious. I bet I'd be laughing my ass off just like Pyle if placed in that room. (Where did Ermey come up with this stuff? I heard a lot of it was improvised.). At the end of that basic training, Kubrick has broken us down. We feel as tired and frustrated as Pyle. If he had just not had the jelly donut we wouldn't have had to watch them do pushups over and over. And that's essentially what our soldiers go though in basic training, except they're the ones doing pushups of course.
So it's a natural transition to go from basic training to Vietnam, but Kubrick failed to make this separation in the movie natural. The characters in the first half (Ermey, Pyle) -- and the scene in the head at the end of basic training -- are just too powerful to make this seem like a natural transition in the film. Granted, Kubrick was working from The Short Timers, so it's not really his fault that this was in the story, but the transition confused the audience.
The other "only Kubrick" complaint is that it was shot entirely in England. Wasn't most Vietnam fighting supposed to be in the jungle? I understand that the last scene is supposed to be the city fighting in Hue, but it's not really representative of the war, right?
Watching this in HD prevented me from seeing some of Kubrick's awesome composition, and I think the film is more powerful when watched in 1.33 format, as Kubrick intended.
Also, given that Kubrick was completely anal about filmmaking and took years to put a film together, I'm a little disappointed in some of the principal photography! There are a few scenes with fire that have a lot of reflection in the lens assembly. Very annoying, and very un-Kubrick in that I can't see how he intended this.
The end of the first half and the second half are a couple of the most intense scenes ever on film. If Joker's "hardcore, man... fucking hard core" moment doesn't stay with you after seeing the movie, you have no heart. I had never noticed this before I read it somewhere else: that Joker only shoots at the end when his peace sign is completely obscured by his lapel. Kubrick, again, is the master.
Sadly, I feel like I can skip a lot of this movie just to see those two scenes. Kubrick has portrayed the monotony of basic training and of "being in the shit" a bit too well, it seems.
Head to Head.
Like all Kubrick (and Hitchcock) movies, the camera is God. The deliberacy of each shot makes the film feel 180 degrees from Stone's film, where the camera tries to follow mayhem in war. It is cold, removed view of war, whereas Stone's down in the mud, bullets flying overhead, chaos everywhere. To its detriment, Platoon ends up having a bit more of a cheesy factor: Sheen ends up with that red scarf around his head, Berenger saying Sheen doesn't have the guts to shoot, stuff like that.
Both films really have the same point: the duality of man that Pvt. Joker tells the general about in Full Metal Jacket. Joker's peace sign/"Born to Kill" combination is the short version of Charlie Sheen's transition from wide-eyed kid to red bandana hard ass killer.
Overall, I think Full Metal Jacket gives a slightly better view of the entire picture of war, but Platoon is a more entertaining, watchable movie.
Both have their place in showing the Vietnam War, and are great films.