Released 1986 (USA)
American & British, in English (some Vietnamese, both translated and not)
Director – Oliver Stone
Stars – Charlie Sheen, Willem Defoe, Tom Berenger, and lots of other men you’ll recognize
Naïve Chris Taylor (Sheen) volunteers for the infantry during the Vietnam War in an attempt to exert independence from his parents. He soon learns how misguided he was. Defoe and Berenger co-star respectively as Sgts. Elias and Barnes, the two men fighting for Chris’s “soul.”
Blue language, racist language, and violence (including toward women, children, and animals) in copious amounts. One non-graphic rape scene.
As much as I love John C. McGinley, his performance as Sgt. O’Neill was so over-the-top that it was distracting.
I wasn’t keen on the voiceover. I was glad that it was fairly limited.
[SPOILER] I found it a tad convenient/heavy-handed that nearly all the men on the “bad” Barnes side ended up dead while most of the men on the “good” Elias side made it out.
Other than McGinley, pretty much everyone else turned in a great performance. Defoe is understated (surprisingly) as the kindly and competent Elias. Berenger is absolutely terrifying as the simmering, off-his-rocker Barnes. I also really enjoyed the performance of Keith David as King, the good-natured man who takes Chris under his wing. But by far the break-out star is Sheen. I’d forgotten that he used to be a good actor. His transformation from wide-eyed greenie to battle-hardened beserker, in less than a year, is amazing.
The cinematography is gorgeous.
I’ve never been in a war, but there’s something about this film that has always felt very real to me. I believe it’s because of the atmosphere Stone set. There’s an underlying tension all the time, even when the men are relaxing. As a viewer, I had this constant sense that disaster was right around the corner. It’s intense. If someone asked me, I’d describe this film as “dark and gritty.”
I also enjoy that the film is morally gray. It’s definitely not one of those “rah rah rah, Americans are great” war films. The insanity of war makes people do insane things, and this movie doesn’t pull any punches in addressing that.
I’d seen this a few times before, but it had been quite a while. From the opening score (oh yeah, the music is great too), I felt this heavy sadness come over me. It was very Pavlovian; since I’d seen it before, and knew what was to come, the music triggered the grief of previous viewings.
This isn’t a happy movie. However, it’s a good one. It’s long been one of my favorites of the Vietnam War genre. I’m glad that, upon this subsequent viewing, it held up. It still felt fresh and real, gripping and moving. It’s a movie I’ll probably watch again a few years from now and get something totally different out of it than what I got before. If you haven’t seen it, you definitely should.
I give the movie 4.5 stars.