Oh, Charlie Sheen, where did you go wrong? You could have been a well-respected Oscar-worthy actor, but instead you went a little loco with all that tiger blood running through your veins. Musta been the war.
When I was younger, I read a lot of books about the Vietnam conflict. Mostly they were soldiers’ memoirs – the story of a sniper, the experiences of a tunnel rat. The war was something that seemed so all-encompassing, as much a conflict at home as it was abroad. Though I’m sure there were other disagreements of this sort in politics and society before Vietnam, this seems to be the foundation of the conservative-liberal debate today. Where the differences in each group’s values and priorities grew apparent.
It was probably television that sparked my interest. Storylines on my beloved Quantum Leap. Then I discovered Tour of Duty in syndication somewhere. Maybe even more than World War II, popular culture has figured into fictional and realistic portrayals of American troops in Vietnam. It fascinates us in a different way than other wars, perhaps because its non-military effects have lasted so much longer. We seek to explain their experiences, understand their horror, because of the way the war’s aftermath has lingered with its participants.
But the thing that I didn’t read much about – and probably didn’t think much about, even – were the lives of the Vietnamese, the people who survived (and didn’t survive) their homes destroyed, their communities shattered, their land covered in unexploded ordnance and poisonous chemicals. Now we go out for pho without thinking too hard about what brought the restaurant owner here, what they were seeking and what they may have left behind. I suspect there’s not much on American television or film that addresses that hole in the experience. However, I know there are Vietnamese writers out there who are exploring this legacy, but I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t name one, nor have I read any of them. It’s a slow process, but I’d like to think I’m getting closer to remedying the gap, for myself, anyway.
But that’s why the most affecting scene for me in Platoon was the one in which the soldiers ransack a village. The troops shoot pigs, burn down thatch huts, hold a gun to a child’s head – all as a show of power, a warning against resistance. We often try to see the actions of our own country at war as justified, if not in the individual forays than at least as a whole.
Platoon sets up this conflict as a dichotomy within Charlie Sheen’s soul – he holds parts of his two commanding officers’ attitudes, the bloodthirsty one and the guy resigned to his fate, trying to get through the day. War exposes something carnal inside us, the instinct to survive battling against our more sophisticated desires. Where does he end up falling?
I wanted to like this a little better, but I had some trouble seeing characters as individuals with unique perspectives, rather than as archetypes, representative of whichever side they fell in the big They/Us separation. You learn early on who the Bad Guys are, and there’s not as much room for complexity. Charlie Sheen’s character volunteers for the war because he wants to learn something – about himself, presumably – but all he learns is that war wasn’t what he expected it to be at all.
Which War? Vietnam War
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: Winning?