Sidewinder’s View: “Platoon” Versus “Born On The 4th Of July”

A lot of people saw the movie Platoon and loved the fact that it made an effective anti-war statement about the Vietnam conflict. I’m not so sure it does. To me, it’s more an example of a good melodrama, combined with a sharp eye for authenticity, a solid collaboration between its writer-director Oliver Stone and its Military Technical Advisor Dale Dye, both Vietnam combat veterans.

The audience is going to see whatever it sees in a given film and make up its own mind, provided the filmmaker leaves it open to that possibility.

Can Platoon be taken as anti-war? Sure. But almost every GI that I served with on active duty loved the movie not for that reason, but because the characters in the movie, good and bad, resonated with them, along with the plot conflicts those characters went through, and, finally, because the combat scenes were thrilling. Chaotic, brutal, scary as hell, but with a visceral quality and level of authenticity that, up to that time, not a lot of war movies had even come close to pulling off.

Good action and suspense in a movie’s like a rollercoaster ride. The combat scenes in Platoon are on that same level.

Comparing Platoon to Born On The 4th Of July, just three years later, it’s like night and day, almost as if Stone realized the combat scenes in Platoon, while scary, also provided some entertaining thrills, not exactly what he had in mind.

So, at least the way I perceived it, Stone chose to correct that previous ‘mistake’ by shooting the combat scenes in Born On The 4th Of July in a crazier, more confusing, less cathartic manner.

The enemy’s always seen from a distance, barely glimpsed, sometimes not even in frame, the camera’s moving a lot, in and out of focus. Stone puts the emphasis on not so much the action of combat, but the frustration of fighting what seems to be ghosts, focusing instead upon combat casualties, the gory, screaming aftermath.

But, also in Born On The 4th Of July, he has the characters wearing Big Messages on their sleeves. If you like that sort of thing, that type of drama, great. I thought it was alright when I was younger, but now, after seeing a lot of it over the years as too many filmmakers have taken the same path, the same approach, I’m not as impressed.

Message movies don’t really work for me, even when I agree with the message, because you’re being told outright, and upfront, what to think. There’s no ambiguity. It’s all very neatly crafted to make a specific point.

“This character’s admirable, this one over here’s an idiot. Two guesses which one’s the mouthpiece for the writer/director? Here’s the message. End of story”.

Platoon’s a classic, more about the characters and their conflicts then it is about a Big Message. Born On The 4th Of July, while I can admire it as a technical achievement, isn’t on the same level.

During my last year or so on active duty, I knew at least a couple GIs who loved Platoon, but outright despised Born On The 4th Of July. I think
that’s not only because the earlier picture was more down to earth and exciting, but Platoon left the big picture more open to interpretation.

Comparitively, Born On The 4th Of July, was heavy-handed and histrionic, painting in big bold colors. It was a polarizing film by design and by virtue of it subject matter: domestic conflict during the Vietnam War.

Platoon, centered more upon story and characters, appealed to a broader demographic, as evidenced by its larger box office numbers and subsequent home video success.

Platoon appealed to both the War Movie crowd and the Anti-War Movie crowd, because it didn’t seem specifically designed to be one kind of film or the other.

If a movie offers enough thrills on a visceral level, the audience will tolerate the ‘preachy stuff’ in order to be entertained, but will likely come away from the experience judging the movie, and returning to watch the movie again, solely for that aspect: Entertainment.

If a movie offers zero entertainment value, no matter high-minded the filmmaker or what his message is, negative word of mouth about the non-entertaining movie is going to spread and audiences will stay away.

Too many filmmakers nowadays seem incapable of grasping that. Anemic plots, an over-reliance on quirky, eccentric character behavior, all too often captured with hideously desaturated hand-held camerawork.

Theme should always take a backseat to story. If you don’t hook the audience with your story, they’re going to tune you out, then trash your movie to everyone they know.

As well they should.