THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Platoon’ (1986)

In 1987, the 59th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1986, and December 31, 1986, the awards were held on March 30. The ceremony was hosted by Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn and Paul Hogan.

After six failed nominations over his three-decade career, Paul Newman finally won a competitive Academy Award. Newman had been presented an Honorary Oscar the year prior. This year, he won Best Actor for his performance in The Color of Money. Newman was not present at the ceremony, choosing to watch the awards from his home in New York. He had been quoted as saying “I’ve been there six times and lost. Maybe if I stay away, I’ll win.” Seems like he was right.

Newman’s nomination for reprising his role from the 1961 film The Hustler made him the fourth actor in Oscars history to receive a nomination for portraying the same character in two different films. His victory made Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward, winner of Best Actress for 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve, the second married couple to both win acting Oscars.

With her Best Actress win for her performance in Children of a Lesser God, Marlee Matlin became the first deaf performer to win an Academy Award. At only 21 years-old, Matlin was also the youngest recipient of the Best Actress category – a record she still holds to this day.

Leading the field this year with eight nominations each were James Ivory’s A Room with a View and Oliver Stone’s Platoon. It marked the first time in six years no single film received double-digit nominations. Despite a rather evenly spread list of films honoured, the major winner was Platoon, taking home four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director for Stone, and Best Film Editing.

The nominees:
Children of a Lesser God
Hannah and Her Sisters
The Mission
Platoon
A Room with a View

The winner:
Platoon

Based on writer/director Oliver Stone’s personal experiences as a U.S. infantryman, Platoon is the shocking and devastating anti-war portrait of the Vietnam War. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) leaves his university studies to enlist in combat duty in Vietnam in 1967. Once he’s on the ground in the middle of battle, his idealism fades. Infighting in his unit between Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), who believes nearby villagers are harbouring Viet Cong soldiers, and Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe), who has a more sympathetic view of the locals, ends up pitting the soldiers against each other as well as against the enemy, as the horrors of the war threaten to destroy them all.

Why did it win?
Standing as the second Vietnam War-related film to take home Best Picture in the last seven years, Platoon marked another example of the Academy’s affection for the war genre, particularly those concerned with highlighting the negative and damaging side of combat. What made Oliver Stone’s film stand apart from previous winner The Deer Hunter, which took great liberties with historical accuracy, was its genuine authenticity. Many Vietnam vets would deeply identify with Platoon, hailing it as the most accurate depiction of the turmoil and tragedies they faced on a daily basis.

Platoon made for a truly harrowing experience, devoid of the usual melodrama and excitement that often accompanies films of the war genre. Stone’s film was free of spectacle, and instead focused in on its gripping narrative. Much like The Deer Hunter, the film highlighted the pointlessness to the Vietnam War, and what a disastrous and redundant war it would ultimately be. The politics of Platoon are not glaringly obvious. It wasn’t seeking to offer answers or make heroes of these soldiers. It was a bleak and stark portrayal of a soldier’s misery in Vietnam, and the response was a resounding success.

On a shoestring budget of only $6 million, Platoon would earn over $138 million at the U.S. box-office, to end the year as the third highest-grossing film of 1986. It was only beaten by two box-office giants in Top Gun and Crocodile Dundee, and managed to outgross big-budget sequels including Aliens, The Karate Kid Part II, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. With the Vietnam War still fresh in the minds of many Americans, the film presented an opportunity for those who weren’t involved in the combat to better understand what vets had gone through.

The film also received widespread acclaim from critics, with many calling it one of the greatest war movies of all time. The New York Times called it “possibly the best work of any kind about the Vietnam War,” the Washington Post hailed it as “a dark and unforgettable memorial to the dead of Vietnam and an awesome requiem to the eternity of war,” and the Chicago Sun-Times declared the film “is not fantasy, not legend, not metaphor, not message, but simply a memory of what it seemed like at the time.”

Once again, the race for Best Picture was all but over by the time the Academy Awards rolled around. Platoon had swept most of the major precursor awards to solidify the film as the frontrunner for the Oscars. It won three Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director, Stone had won the Directors Guild award, and the film had also swept the second annual Independent Spirit Awards, taking home four awards. With immense success with the public, the critics, and the precursor awards, the Academy really had no choice but to follow suit, and rightly so.

Did it deserve to win?
With all due respect to the other four nominees, there was simply no other film more deserving of taking home Best Picture this year than Platoon. It truly stands as one of the Academy’s finest decisions you cannot argue against. It was far and away the best film of 1986, and represents one of the greatest films of the 1980s. Granted it’s not exactly a film you’re likely to rush out and watch again in a hurry, but that just proves its immense power and impact.

Almost from the film’s beginning, Stone drops you right into the action by choosing to film in an almost documentary-style that makes for genuinely unnerving and unsettling viewing. Never before has the carnage, confusion, and mayhem of war been captured like this. Things only get even more intense when the battle switches to nighttime where the only lighting is that of flares, bombs, and sparks from ricocheting bullets. It’s easy to see why veterans who were actually there identify Platoon as the one film which feels almost like a nightmarish flashback to their time in Vietnam.

With his personal connection to his narrative, Stone deftly understands how to recreate the horrors of America’s catastrophic invasion of Vietnam. He delivers an unflinching and confronting portrait of what these doomed men had to endure, made even more authentic by the stories of what Stone put his actors through to create his vision. Sheen, Dafoe, and Berenger would later describe the three-month production as pure hell, but the results speak for themselves. These don’t feel like actors performing a script. This feels like war, and war is absolute fucking hell.

Unlike many other films of the war genre, there’s no background information regarding who is actually pulling the strings of these operations. We’re not given a grand strategist or bold military mind, like in Patton. We’re not even really provided an insight into any motivations behind the platoon’s actions or their mission. This is the soldier’s perspective, whose only directive appears to stay alive by shooting to kill. That’s often all a soldier knows, and Stone chooses this to be all the audience knows, as well.

Stone pulls no punches here. He’s serving up the cold and brutal reality of his time in Vietnam, and the final result is startling, to say the least. There are several deeply unsettling sequences, particularly when the platoon discovers a village of locals they believe is harbouring Vietcong soldiers and begin to use any means necessary to flush them out. While it’s not surprising to see such misery and horror from a pointless war we know damaged so many lives, it still hits you right in the stomach.

With some terrific performances from its ensemble cast, Stone’s brilliant direction and writing, and sublime cinematography and editing, Platoon is a true triumph of filmmaking. The film stands as Stone’s most deeply personal work to date, and the result is astounding. It’s naturally hard to watch, but this response reminds you of the torment and pain these men suffered through for a totally pointless war. It’s impossible not to be moved by Platoon, and it still remains one of the most deserving of the Academy’s Best Picture prize.