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Platoon (Best Picture, 1986)

In this film, a very, VERY young Charlie Sheen takes his epic eyebrows with him to the Vietnam War.  I’m guessing this is before his “tiger blood” took over.  Or at least before it started to show.  Unlike some later things I’ve seen him in (notably TWO AND A HALF MEN), he is still able to look young, innocent, and traumatized in PLATOON.  It’s actually a little uncomfortable to feel sorry for him in this role, since I know a little of what he’s turned into over the years.  Though of course it is nice to know that he was once a talented actor of nuance and subtlety.

Also, who knew Johnny Depp is in this?! Holy moly.

I have to admit, I’ve been putting off watching this.  After the grim lineup of the 1970s winners, it was hard to face another Vietnam War psychological trauma film.  On the other hand, the trajectory of Best Picture winners seems to be growing increasingly towards the dark, the unhappy, and the emotional sturm und drang that continues to this day.  I mean, when THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING is one of the lighter films to have won in the past fifteen years, you know you’ve gotten dark.  There’s something about the Vietnam movies, though – PLATOON and THE DEER HUNTER in particular – that is dark in a hopeless sort of way.  As though the spiral downwards will continue no matter what one does, and I find that hardest of all to handle.  My grasp on 20th century history is tenuous enough that I’m still not entirely clear on why the US was in Vietnam at all.  Please note I am NOT ASKING FOR A LESSON HERE.  If I feel inclined to do further research once I’ve recovered from these films I will do so myself.

Anyways. PLATOON.  It is really a remarkable lineup of recognizable male faces, in spite of the fact that PLATOON is a good twenty years older than most of the performances I know them from.  Aside from Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, and Charlie Sheen, there’s also John C. McGinley (aka Dr. Cox from SCRUBS), Forest Whitaker (Idi Amin in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND), and Mark Moses (Paul Young on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, Duck Phillips on MAD MEN, and any number of other guest appearances on primetime shows).

I dunno. Not a favorite… I could definitely go for a film with less swearing!  On the other hand, apparently John C. McGinley has a little Dr. Cox in him, even in 1986.  Or maybe it’s that Dr. Cox has a little Sergeant O’Neill in him.  Or it’s just McGinley.

A lot of the themes that come up in the Vietnam movies are ones that seem obvious today, with our 20/20 hindsight and chronological distance from the conflict.  As Sheen’s character remarks at the end of the film, the enemy was “within us.”  In other words, it could be argued that along with the horrific damage done to the Vietnamese people and Vietnamese nation, the US troops did horrific damage to themselves and each other.  I don’t know. I don’t know enough about the history of this time or how the narrative has evolved, but it seems to me that we’re still suffering from the Vietnam War in the thousands of emotionally and physically damaged men, many of whom are homeless, many of whom are unable to recover sufficiently to live a “normal” life.  I’m heading into a rant about the problems plaguing the VA system here, so I’d better just stop and move onto the next film.

The Last Emperor (Best Picture, 1987)

Hey, remember when I was excited about getting hold of the director’s cut of AMADEUS? It had a whole extra twenty minutes!  And that was great because I knew the film well and adding twenty minutes didn’t make it unreasonably long!

Yeah. I accidentally got the director’s cut of THE LAST EMPEROR which clocks in at a whopping 218 minutes.  It has an extra HOUR.  And since I’m an impatient person with an evening to kill, I’m watching it instead of trying to track down the theatrical release.

Sometimes I wonder if the Academy Awards should be based on the extended edition/director’s cut instead of the theatrical release, if the director knows he/she is going release said extended version. Might make a difference.

Films that make heavy use of flashbacks are often difficult to follow, and this is true of THE LAST EMPEROR.  It makes most sense when it’s been seen all the way through, especially for someone like me with limited knowledge of imperial Chinese history, culture, and tradition.  That said, it is a strikingly beautiful film.  It also has the remarkable distinction of having Pujie, the younger brother of Puyi (the titular character), serve as technical advisor.

It is admirable that the film doesn’t seem to shy away from tricky subjects, though I can’t help but wonder how much it has actually been cleaned up. One particularly iffy moment for current sensibilities is a scene in which the eight-year-old Puyi breastfeeding.  On the other hand, the scenes in the Communist prisons are not what I have come to expect from descriptions or depictions of “re-education centers.”  Perhaps my perceptions have been skewed by the tendency to portray Communist prisons as concentration camps, or maybe it HAS been cleaned up.  I don’t know.

Puyi is depicted as a thoughtful intellectual as an adult, and kind of a brat as a child, though who can blame a kid who is never told he is wrong?  He is shown to be an obedient prisoner but still independent-minded.

I must say, I am very impressed by the caliber of child actors used in this film.  The boys playing Puyi and Pujie at different stages in their young lives are impressive in their control and their ability to convey strong, convincing emotions that are age-appropriate for their characters.  John Lone, as the adult Puyi, also turns in a compelling performance, able to convey an amazing amount with just a look.  He actually speaks very little, just observes and thinks.  And of course I always love Peter O’Toole.

Next Up: Rain Man (Best Picture, 1988) and Driving Miss Daisy (Best Picture, 1989)