Directed by Oliver Stone
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 2019
I first watched it on June 13th, 2020
What It’s About:
Largely based on the writer/director Oliver Stone’s personal experiences during the Vietnam war, Platoon tells the story of a young idealistic soldier and how his time in conflict challenges his worldview.
My experience with the film:
My first viewing of Platoon was last year as a part of my continuing attempt to watch every Best-Picture-winning film (first mentioned here), and this most recent viewing was spurred by its selection for discussion in my Oscar movie club (first explained here).
Much has been said about this film and, as usual, I’ll point you toward some of that discussion in the resources below. But interestingly, one aspect of the film that I didn’t see much discussion about while I was doing my typical internet searches was its use of “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber. “Adagio” happens to be one of my favorite pieces of instrumental music, which may also explain why I found its use in Platoon maddeningly frustrating.
Adagio is a slow and somber piece of music, but it gradually builds to an intense climax. After the crescendo of the climax reaches its peak, we get a moment of silence before the more subdued notes restart the theme that eventually leads to the end of the piece. That sequence of crescendo, silence, and subdued conclusion for me has always felt strangely cathartic, like the feeling of release that comes when you’ve held in your emotions for too long before finally allowing yourself to cry and let it all out. (The specific portion that I am talking about begins at roughly the 5-minute-21-second mark in the video below and goes until about the 6-minute-16-second mark.) However, we never get to fully hear that sequence from this piece of music within the film.
The first time that we come close to hearing it is during the scene when Elias dies. After his death, as the helicopter flies away, we hear the beginning of this sequence, all the way up to the final note of the climax. But, rather than allowing that final note to fully build to its conclusion and to be followed by the important silence that follows, the note begins to decrescendo early, and is eventually drowned out by the sound of a helicopter as we are denied the full resolution. (You can see what I mean in the movie clip below, especially if you start at the 2-minute-18-second mark.)
Stranger still, the second time that we are teased with it is during the end credits. Again, the music approaches the climax, but before it gets all the way there, the credits end, and the music fades. We never get to finish this part of Adagio or hear the end of the piece. Was this an intentional choice? Possibly. But I never found any explicit mention of it. While the Blu-ray extras do include some material from the film’s editor and director talking about why and how Barber’s Adagio for Strings came to be the theme for the film, the fact that it is always cut short is never discussed.
Does the film deny us the catharsis that the end of the Adagio provides in order to create a metaphor about how there was no true release or relief from the war, even after going home? Again, possibly. Or, maybe it’s just a long piece of music, and they never got around to using the full 8 minutes of it all in one scene. Whether the choice was intentional on the part of the director and/or editor, I don’t know. But I do think that this metaphor could be a valid reading of the way that Adagio is used in the film. I also know that after both viewings, I had to take the time to listen to Adagio for Strings in its entirety because I could no longer stand the frustration of being denied the most satisfying part of this piece of music.
(Oh, and for the record: I enjoyed the film, despite the fact that its brutality made it hard to watch at times.)
Platoon (1986) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/platoon
To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:
- I highly recommend listening to the audio version of this NPR article about the history of Adagio for Strings (the audio option is at the top of the page, under the headline, before the main body of text) – https://www.npr.org/2019/02/13/694388226/samuel-barber-adagio-for-strings-tiesto-william-orbit-american-anthem
- The Blu-ray pictured above has several behind-the-scenes features, including some that feature actual Vietnam war veterans. It also has two audio commentaries, including one from the director (which I also highly recommend) where he discusses in detail many of his personal experiences in Vietnam that inspired the events and characters in the film.
- An analysis of the Christian symbolism in the film surrounding the character of Elias: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJ-DcMhzylc
- The original 1986 review from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1986/12/19/movies/film-the-vietnam-war-in-stone-s-platoon.html
- The original (somewhat negative) 1986 review from Variety: https://variety.com/1986/film/reviews/platoon-1200427020/
- The review from Siskel and Ebert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOijaZZCeXg
- A YouTube review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rHIwFP3mJc
- A clip where Larry King interviews Willem Dafoe about his role in Platoon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pd2PkKM9RvU
- The Wikipedia page for Platoon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platoon_(film)
For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory.