#ThrowbackThursday – Platoon

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Original US release date: December 19, 1986
Production budget: $6,000,000
Worldwide gross: $138,530,565

#ThrowbackThursday returns with the second Oliver Stone film in the last three weeks, with Born on the Fourth of July being the first, two weeks ago.  Much like that film, Platoon is also set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.  However, where Born on the Fourth of July addressed the effects that the war had on its veterans in the aftermath of the conflict, Platoon takes place entirely during the combat, tackling the experience that the soldiers had to survive in order to get back home to the United States.  What results is a complex, sometimes uneven, always disturbing look at the horrors and controversies of the Vietnam War.

Told from the perspective of Charlie Sheen’s recruit Chris Taylor, the film follows Taylor and the rest of his platoon as they fight for survival in the jungles of 1967 Vietnam.  This probably isn’t going to be a popular or well-received observation, but Sheen actually does a nice job in the role.  It’s his responsibility to guide the viewer through this harrowing journey and he does an admirable job in presenting himself as relatable and sympathetic.  This is in spite of the fact that Chris is the only one of the bunch (of which we are aware) who is there by choice, having volunteered to fight after growing up immersed in a privileged lifestyle.

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Outside of Sheen, only Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger truly stand out among the cast (at least for positive reasons).  Both of them display range and nuance in their performances that each garnered both of them many award nominations during the early-1987 awards season, and deservingly so – particularly for Dafoe.  The others are all relegated to Donald Trump-esque “locker room behavior” that does nothing to endear them to audiences.  Most of them do fine with their parts (though said roles are hardly challenging), with the exception of John C. McGinley.  McGinley may well be a very fine gentleman and I mean no personal offense but he has managed to craft an entire career for himself based solely on his unique face.  His performance in this film is no exception as he constantly waffles between overacting (anytime he speaks) and not acting at all (when he’s tasked with physically emoting).

The rest of the issues with the performances can likely be laid at the feet of Stone’s script, as he asks nothing of them aside from the previously referenced alpha male trumpeting.  I’m not so naïve nor egotistical as to imagine that this was lost on Stone; the only question is why he chose to present these characters in this way.  It may be for realism.  It may be to make a statement about the American government’s attitude towards the war at that time.  Or it may even be a reference towards the American people’s overzealousness towards applying military force to settle disputes.  Choose your favorite.  Regardless, it creates a divide between the majority of the cast and the typical moviegoer who wants someone to root for.  But that may have been the goal as Stone’s writing and directing makes it very clear that there is almost nothing and no one to be proud of in this scenario.  The American soldiers are cruel towards Vietnamese citizens, children, and even animals, taking pleasure in their destructive actions.  Only Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias approximates heroism in the face of daily death, making him the film’s lone anchor for the audience.

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Once the horror and tragedy begins to unfold in earnest, it’s still easy to feel for the characters in spite of their flaws, but mostly in the broader sense in which one cares for humanity in general, rather than the more personal sort of caring in which the viewer is invested in each character’s individual plight.  It’s also obvious that these people are being partially shaped by their wartime experiences, and that helps their cause, but most of them still aren’t resistant to their darker natures taking over.  If Doctor Jekyll welcomes Mister Hyde, why care about either?

Clearly an antiwar film, while aesthetically and cosmetically appealing and excellently staged (featuring plenty of wartime action), Platoon never quite ventures into the territory of glorifying war, even if most of the characters seem a little too happy to be there.  But, for me, where the story structure falters is in its lack of a narrative hook.  All too often, films will have no central focus – no goal in sight for the characters or the audience, leaving the viewer wondering what the ultimate destination is supposed to be.  What essentially results from this omission is the total elimination of a beginning, middle, and end to the story.  Instead, the story starts, meanders around without any direction or natural crescendo, and then eventually just concludes.

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This is something that has always bothered me in film and Platoon shares this dubious distinction with another highly-regarded war film in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.  I wasn’t crazy about that film for this very reason.  On the other hand, both films won Best Picture at the Oscars, so maybe I’m the only one who cares about that sort of thing.  I’m not about to say that a compelling film can’t be made without that standard format in tact, but I will maintain that it’s sufficiently more difficult to do so.

I’m of two minds about Platoon.  Stone’s message isn’t quite as clear as in Born on the Fourth of July and I found it somewhat difficult to become invested in the characters as presented.  Still, there are some solid performances, excellent set pieces, and the torture of the Vietnam War is easy to comprehend even to those with their heads firmly buried in the sand.  This is the story of soldiers who only wish to fight for their country, but have no idea who they are actually fighting or what they are fighting for.  This is the story of the dangers of nationalism over patriotism.  Platoon isn’t my favorite war movie, and it may have some structural and character issues, but the film has its value and I would recommend a watch for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Platoon

#ThrowbackThursday – Larry Crowne

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Original US release date: July 1, 2011
Production budget: $30,000,000
Worldwide gross: $72,008,245

Back in 2011, Tom Hanks released Larry Crowne, a film that he directed and co-wrote, along with Nia Vardalos.  The marketing mostly centered around the fact that the film co-starred Hanks and Julia Roberts.  It wasn’t their first film together, but it was the first where they both played to type.  Despite that, the box office returns were mediocre and the reviews were even worse.  Hanks and Roberts are two of the biggest, most-beloved movie stars of the last thirty years.  How could something that seemed like such a sure thing go so wrong?  What happened?  Was the film really that bad?

Larry Crowne follows the eponymous Larry Crowne, portrayed by Hanks.  Larry is the typical wholesome good guy that has largely defined Hanks’s career – or at least the public perception of his career.  When Larry is let go from his longtime sales position at a mass-market retailing chain for not having a college education (and therefore possessing the least upside of anyone else at the location), he decides to rectify his situation by finally pursuing a degree.  He enrolls at a local community college and learns more about himself than is dictated by any syllabi, just as he affects the other students and his professors by injecting his infectious optimism into their lives.

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The role of Larry Crowne does little to nothing to push Hanks to the boundaries of his talents, but it’s still an endearing part and it’s always nice to see Hanks play this sort of fatherly, uplifting character to supplement the more challenging roles that he has also tackled during his career.  He is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, led by Julia Roberts.  Roberts plays Larry’s speech professor, Mercy Tainot.  Mercy is cynical and beaten – her enthusiasm for life stamped out by the people around her.  Her students are uninspired and her husband (Bryan Cranston) sits at home all day, looking at PG-13 photos of women in their underwear (the movie’s interpretation of “porn”).

Backing up Hanks and Roberts is a who’s-who of talented actors – many of whom have gone on to become huge names in their own right.  Included in the cast is the aforementioned Cranston, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, George Takei, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who should be a much bigger star than she is), Wilmer Valderrama, and Hanks’s real-life wife Rita Wilson.  Of this group, contributing the most to the film are Malik and Mbatha-Raw.  As a college professor, myself, I can confirm that Malik’s Steve Dibiasi is the most like a real-life college student.  He provides much of the film’s humor (of which there is quite a bit, and pretty much all of it lands, to some degree) and is supremely likable in spite of Dibiasi’s annoying tendencies and entitled approach to life.  Mbatha-Raw’s Talia is a fellow student who takes an immediate liking to Larry and helps him adapt to modern-day college life.  Talia is an unusually upbeat character for Mbatha-Raw, who typically plays more serious parts.  It’s refreshing to see her smiling and joking and revealing a rarely-seen side of herself, displaying some versatility along the way.  She’s exuberant and adds an element of life and energy to the film that would have been noticeably lacking without her presence.

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So, what happened?  Why didn’t the film blow the box office away and rack up $200+ million in worldwide box office receipts?  Three things, I believe:

  1. The reviews.  As I mentioned, the reviews were rather critical of the film upon its release.  Or, at least, on first glance.  Upon further inspection, they generally acknowledge that the film has it’s positives, but plays it too safe.  I can’t argue that it’s not safe.  But it’s also so entertaining and charming along the way that it shouldn’t really matter, in my estimation.  I laughed quite a bit, I enjoyed the performances, and I was invested in the characters.  I can deal with safe.
  2. The title.  Honestly, does Larry Crowne stand out as a title in any meaningful way, at all?  Even when I hear the title, myself, I have to ransack my memory in order to recall which movie it was and what it was about.  Unless the character is already a household name, titling a film with just said character’s name is risky.  I have always maintained that John Carter would have performed at least somewhat better at the box office if it had been called John Carter of Mars.  Sometimes, it works out (such as with John Wick), but it’s a gamble.
  3. The marketplace.  This film was released on July 1, right in the middle of blockbuster season.  What was it up against?  A week prior saw the release of Cars 2.  On the same day as Larry Crowne was released, Transformers: Dark of the Moon also hit theaters.  Midnight in Paris and The Town were also still hanging around, pulling in the adult crowds with counterprogramming.  Had the movie opened in the spring or the fall, I think it would have gotten more attention and performed more admirably at the box office.  Even with mostly-underwhelming reviews, people love Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and want to support them.  But timing matters.

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So, while Larry Crowne isn’t an exercise in groundbreaking filmmaking, it’s still a fun, delightful time with laughs and wit abound.  It’s sadly been forgotten in the six years since its release, but it’s an appropriate movie to watch when one is in the mood for something light and uplifting.  And it’s a fun game of Spot-the-Future-Star, to boot!  Larry Crowne isn’t an all-time classic, but it deserves better than its reputation – or its lack thereof – suggests.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Larry Crowne