Worst Best Picture: Is Platoon Better or Worse Than Crash?


Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1986 winner Platoon. Is it better than Crash?

If someone asked you to see a movie about the evils of war and the dual nature of man with regard to good and evil, you might be on board. If someone told you that movie had Charlie Sheen at the center, you would need to ask what year it was.

Charlie Sheen’s career is a curious one. A few years back people were going to Charlie Sheen live shows just to see what he’d do. He went crazy in public and everyone gawked at it because mental stability is razor-thin. Everyone is afraid to lose their mind. Everyone is fascinated to watch it happen to someone that, apparently, no one really wants to help.

Tiger blood and whatever aside, Platoon is Charlie Sheen in Oliver Stone’s manifesto about how war is hell. He joins a huge cast that also includes Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, John C. McGinley, Keith David, and Tom Berenger all yelling at each other about how best to handle being left in Vietnam with no clear purpose. It’s certainly about Vietnam, but it’s also about how adversity changes a person. The titular platoon is divided into two camps. One follows Dafoe’s by-the-book approach of not murdering and raping people, the other sides with the crazed Berenger and his apparent plan to save the village by destroying it.

This may sound odd, but there’s an awful lot of actual war in this war movie. People who watch Full Metal Jacket for the first time are often surprised that the entirety of the scenes and quotes they know all happen in the first half hour or so. All of Full Metal Jacket‘s cultural cache happens before they even get to the damn war. Not so with Platoon. Oliver Stone makes a deliberate choice to keep the camera on the violence. Over and over, the cast is thrust into the jungle to get shot at again. It’s a two hour movie and at least a full hour of it takes place with gunfire in the background.

The effect is very real: War is everywhere, and when you are at war, doubly so. It makes for an uneasy viewing that constantly drills home what Oliver Stone wanted to say: Do not ever romanticize this. He’s said that he made the movie because he felt that too often audiences were only presented with positive and heroic portrayals of war.

Platoon is a brutal movie. When McGinley’s character saves himself during a firefight by hiding under dead bodies, it is both frightening and sad. The Vietnam War is never an easy subject to discuss in American history, but the general consensus seems to be that it was at the very least a damned shame. Platoon is essential viewing to understand the American experience, and whatever you think of Oliver Stone’s personal politics, this movie’s only agenda is tough to debate.

The Best Part: For sheer memorability, the scene where McGinley covers himself with a body to survive stands out. The firefights are so arresting that even 30 years later they still create a sense of anxiety and dread. Forrest Gump‘s ‘Nam is very similar, but it doesn’t feel like it matters. This feels real — too real — and the movie hums because it scares and depresses the viewer.

The Worst Part: Berenger’s character is a brutal villain. War movies often only show one side of a conflict, so it can be tough to discern a “villain” in the classic sense. In this movie, it’s definitely him. He tries to sow dissent through violence and threats. He reacts to someone saying that he should cool down by burning down a town. He’s the violence in all of us wrapped up into one scarred up guy. If there’s an issue with him, it’s that he’s never really explained. He’s left as this uber-asshole, just a guy who wants chaos for chaos’ sake. Those people assuredly exist, but he could be deeper with some motive.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It can be tempting to just say that Platoon is good and Crash is not, but it’s about the whyPlatoon stirs the pot by forcing Americans to watch one of their greatest nightmares on camera. Crash stirs the pot by demanding that present day is worse than we admit. War and racism are both complicated and both bad, but we’re on board for that. The challenge is to find something new to say, and Platoon does. The “good” guys in Platoon are still burning down a town and at war. They’re still racists and violent lunatics — they’re just less so than their counterparts. Platoon introduces shades of grey into what war does to a person. Crash suggests that shades of grey are just what we pretend exist because we won’t open our eyes. Both are negative messages, but one is without hope, and that’s just not interesting. It’s not the pessimism that dooms Crash, it’s how damn happy to be “right” about its message that does.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Oscars.org


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