(All media is telling you something. This is the first post of a series where I take a look at the thoughts conveyed through Oscar winning movies. This isn’t a typical critique where I say I liked blah about the movie because of blahibity blah. I’ll make an attempt to take a look at themes on Jesus and Christianity. Spoilers are a necessity on this so be warned!)
Best Picture, Best Director 1986
“I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days as I’m sure Elias will be, fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called possession of my soul. There are times since, I’ve felt like the child born of those two fathers. But, be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again, to teach to others what we know, and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.” – the last lines of the film uttered by Chris Taylor
Platoon is obsessed with morality. You could watch Platoon prethinking that Oliver Stone’s point was to throw everything into a moral quagmire fitting of the tropical topography of Vietnam. You could imagine the film pointing fingers at the BS in all institutions of moral thought and coming out promoting Nihlism by default. The finger in Platoon finds plenty of BS. However, that finger is pointed directly at ourselves. And Nihlism is certainly not the goal.
Chris, the films protagonist, is different than the other guys in his unit. He chose Vietnam rather than being forced there by poverty or being drafted. Chris is looking for something. In his words, “Maybe from down here I can start up again. Be something I can be proud of without having to fake it, be a fake human being.” That “being something” applies to more than the individual in this film. That applies to a country or community. Vietnam, to Platoon, is the forge that tests our morality.
Christianity is referenced directly a few times in the film. In one scene we see a soldier who has a Jesus Saves shrine at his bunk. He is killed in action shortly after. The seeming absence of God is reinforced by the films definition of hell. Hell is defined in the film as “the impossibility of reason”. Chris says that Vietnam feels like that. Hell.
Indirectly, Platoon tells us that people are not directly connected to their morality. They go through the motions of doing what society says is right without truly thinking about it. Several characters, however, voice vague feelings that something is terribly wrong in their actions and thinking. This is less about the weight of judgment and instead about losing something of yourself by your action or inaction.
Platoon will make you wrestle with these issues. In particular, Platoon will challenge you to consider why you actually do what you do. It will urge you to deeply consider the institutions in your life. It will petition you to confront people directly when those actions run contrary to morality. You get the feeling that Platoon thinks that if more people had done that beforehand we wouldn’t have been in Vietnam with M-16’s in the first place. (The conflict with Sgt. Barnes illustrates this.)
From a Christian point of view, much could be explained by considering a quote from Sgt. Elias, one of the voices of conscious in the film. “I love this place at night, the stars. There’s no right or wrong in them. They’re just there.” I believe that this is a true sentiment of the film and not just a characters point of view. However, Christ, for whom all things are created and who is in all things, is in the stars. They are “good” as described by God after making them. Stars show the glorious mind God has: how beautiful things can shine in amazing glory when they move within God’s law. God set the path of the stars. He can set ours too. Otherwise we risk becoming the wandering star talked about in Jude. That wandering star may have moments of beauty but it’s destiny is to fizzle out or collide with others,and it cannot be relied upon for navigation.
Platoon wrestles not only with morality, it wrestles with how you can know you are doing the moral thing in the first place. Since morality is deeply multifaceted, multiple responses to any situation can have moral undertones. How can we know what’s best? This illustrates something that is very important in Christianity that is often not understood by many Christians themselves. The purpose of faith is not encompassed in morality. Our lives are not about how “right” we are. Our lives are about oneness with Jesus. His righteousness is what’s important. If morality becomes an end to itself, it makes our lives about the percentage of things we get right. Then morality is simply about ourselves. If morality is ultimately a comparison to something invisible, than if Chris or we filter our morality through ourselves alone, we ultimately put a stamp of approval on anyone’s actions since we are giving silent assent to the notion that the “invisible” thing is determined by the individual.
Platoon is definitely trying to say something about war (that it is a drug as evidenced by smoking dope through a gun and that it is pointless by selectively showing scenes of villages destroyed and pointless death without showing any positive changes that surely came to some who lived in that country), but that is secondary to the battle for our goodness. The answer according to Platoon is through self examination. In Christian faith, the answer starts with self examination. That leads to acquiring the mind of Christ and being transformed by it rather than conforming to the pattern of the world. That leads to dying to the world and being resurrected to new life.
“This ain’t Taylor. Taylor been shot. This man Chris been resurrected.”