Oops! I meant to post this last Friday when it aired in Voices & Viewpoints. In my defense, this time of the semester it’s hard for me to keep up with everything!
Veteran’s Day is a fitting time for us to talk about war movies and the way these films serve different cultural functions. There are some great films to choose among; some of them celebrate valiant service while others question the enterprise of war. Today, I’ll stick with fictional narratives to make our discussion manageable and will focus mainly on the singular film that comes to mind for me when I hear the term “war movie.”
Where to begin? Some war movies serve a historical function, and if you’ve never Edward Zwick’s 1989 film Glory, you should. Glory is based on a true story in which a white Union officer leads the country’s first African American company of volunteer soldiers in a fateful mission during the Civil War. It is profoundly moving.
Other films engage intellect more than emotion. Stanley Kubrick’s thought-provoking 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, satirizes the nuclear buildup during the cold war.
And, still other films expand our understanding of what constitutes a war movie. Waltz With Bashir is an animated memoir of war. This is a remarkable non-fiction film that presents an entirely new set of possibilities to viewers and filmmakers about how form and content can be melded into something startlingly fresh.
These are three terrific yet very different films, but the movie I inevitably think of first when I think of war movies is Platoon. It moved me incredibly in 1986 when Platoon first appeared in theaters, and Oliver Stone’s academy award-winning film has remained one I count among my favorites because of the richness of the text.
It’s not just me. After years of trying to forget about the Vietnam war or to at least avoid sustained public discourse about the film, Stone’s semi-autobiographical account of his own war experience opened the floodgates for other films about the controversial war. As a collective, we needed to see this film or engage in some sort of larger discussion about Vietnam to start to heal as a culture and to move forward.
Platoon is a film that opens up that conversation on many different levels. While it’s easy to criticize Oliver Stone, especially his more recent films, it’s hard to argue with the fact that he and Spike Lee were two of the most accomplished writer-directors of the mid-1980s to the mid- 1990s. Both of them have a distinct point of view, and the films of that era have remarkable staying power and cultural relevance.
What sets Platoon apart from other war films? It’s a movie that works on many, many different levels. In a literary sense, it’s a coming of age story with a narrator named Chris who is becoming a man under the most trying of circumstances that include two role models, sergeants Barnes and Elias who represent different poles of manhood. Chris has dropped out of college to enlist in the war – something those drafted against their will do not understand – and the young outsider is trying to decide which of these officers to emulate as he matures.
That scenario is a classic tale of war and manhood, but this film offers so much more. Despite the focus on the young protagonist who writes to his grandmother and tries to stay alive day-by-day, the film also establishes a collective social space, the actual platoon. In this unit, we learn about divisions of race and social class and ideology. For Stone, the enemy isn’t just the Vietnamese, it is the war itself and what it leads men to do, and sometimes it is an internal enemy that drives Chris to contemplate and even commit acts that would be unthinkable under other circumstances. The film Platoon poses hard questions, and the filmmaker Oliver Stone does not insult his audience with easy answers. He challenges the assumptions underlying the Vietnam War without scapegoating the individual men who fought it.
Platoon establishes a rich narrative and aesthetic terrain that is both epic and personal, both topical and timeless, both literary and cinematic. It is a remarkable film…and Veterans Day is a perfect time to watch it once again…or for the first time.