So as the Reagan years began to wind up and prepared to become the Bush years, it seems popular culture was of two minds where war was concerned. On the one hand, they were still getting over their long road to a costly loss in Vietnam. On the other, they wanted to win this Cold War with the Soviets, and thus wanted people to remain psyched about the US military. Plus if the military thinks your movie is flattering enough to them, they lend you authentic equipment and support and whatnot, which is partially why Michael Bay’s oeuvre is so aggressively pro-military, to the point where the Good Soldiers are the only characters in Transformers with a scrap of dignity.
And thus did 1986 approach the issue from some very different angles. Which means our tonal rollercoaster continues.
And The Oscar Goes To…
Oliver Stone, everybody, the biggest and most famous director who I feel has personally wronged me. Look, I was fine when I went into Natural Born Killers, then hours later I’m hospitalized with appendicitis. That movie was so bad my body tried to self-destruct.
Oliver Stone’s look into the horrors of the Vietnam war (in a much less one-sided way than The Deer Hunter) features a cast full of present and future stars: Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, John C. McGinley, Kevin Dillon, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp, Tony Todd, and Keith David.
The basic premise of Platoon is simple enough: rookie soldier Chris Taylor (Sheen) arrives in Vietnam to find that 1) this war in unpleasant; and 2) it had little patience for training the newbies. You died quickly or you didn’t, at which point maybe it’s worth learning your name. Taylor’s platoon is pulled between two men: honourable, noble Sgt. Elias (Dafoe) and vicious, cruel, but effective Sgt. Barnes (Berenger). Elias and his followers try to fight a clean war while supporting each other. Barnes is obviously the Bad One because he has facial scars and that’s Hollywood shorthand for “bad guy.” He and his followers, including the equally savage Bunny (Dillon) and the sycophantic Sgt. O’Neill (McGinley, who’s amazing), would burn this entire country and half their own side to the ground just to catch the enemy in the flames. Their lieutenant is weak and useless so the fight for Taylor and the larger platoon’s soul is between Elias and Barnes. That shot on the poster, the most well-known shot of the movie, gives a hint as to how this fight goes. If it’s unclear… Oliver Stone’s thesis is that war in general and the Vietnam war in specific is not a place where goodness or nobility thrives. So… don’t get too attached to Elias.
Platoon is unflinching in exploring how messed up the Vietnam war was, without openly demonizing the Viet Cong. Sure they’re trying to kill the main characters, but so are the ants. Ant bites and leeches are only slightly less bad for Taylor than actual combat, and the North Vietnamese Army isn’t portrayed nearly as bad as Barnes and Bunny, their enabling lieutenant, and even O’Neill, who doesn’t agree with Barnes’ worst actions but doesn’t do a lot to stop them.
The Deer Hunter made the NVA look as bad as possible, mistreating their prisoners and forcing them to play Russian roulette so their captors can gamble on it (don’t get started on that again, Dan, stick to Platoon…). Platoon admits that the Americans did some screwed up things in that war. Platoon has an extended sequence where Bunny and Barnes straight up do war crimes and just… get away with it. Elias throws down with Barnes and tries to report him (and the lieutenant who didn’t intervene), but while the captain acts tough about civilian murders and does threaten court martials, he also doesn’t want to lose people if he doesn’t have to.
Taylor notices that the men in his platoon are all from tiny towns, places where they didn’t have a lot of options in life. While he dropped out of college to enlist out of a sense of duty, the men he serves with turned to the army because that was their only move. So Platoon is digging into how the military preys on poverty to exist. I was reminded of the Winter’s Bone scene that laid out its main character’s only choices in her rural life: motherhood or military.
And of all the horrors of war presented, the worst option seems to be ending up Sgt. Barnes, drained of humanity to the point where you no longer care who you’re killing. The climax involves what soldiers survived the last action beat being overrun by the NVA, and only a handful surviving, but even then, the movie’s villain remains Barnes. when Bunny gets executed by an enemy soldier, you can’t help but think “Good, he had it coming.”
It is a grim, unpleasant ride through Taylor’s tour of duty, and not everyone who dies should have, but it’s a well told an important look at America’s involvement in Vietnam.
And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s ranked at #61, just over Ordinary People, and… four spots under How Green Was My Valley!? For real? I agree with only one of those.
Okay, so, that’s the “Our last war was bad, actually” movie of 1986. Time to hop onto the highway.
The highway to the Danger Zone.
The Box Office Champ
Tom Cruise, everybody. This wasn’t his first movie, he’d already done the four we mentioned earlier and the weird fantasy movie Legend (which I only kind of remember), but this is where Cruise jumped into superstardom, becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars right up until his Scientology Space Pope period started turning people off.
In his video on Mission: Impossible and why it’s great (which is required viewing for anyone trying to avoid me explaining it instead), Patrick Willems breaks Tom Cruise’s career into eras, and Top Gun came halfway through his first. His first era, Willems explains, is defined by two types of movie. First, which we’ll circle back to in a few pages, Tom Cruise playing a supporting role to an established, more famous actor like Paul Newman (The Color of Money), Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), or Jack Nicholson (A Few Good Men, which… okay, Cruise was clearly the lead role but I get Willems’ point there). Second, Tom Cruise playing someone who’s the Very Best at flying or racing or… flair bartending why not, but needs to prove he’s the Very Best because someone doubts he’s the Very Best.
Which, yeah, that’s Top Gun.
Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is a highly skilled fighter pilot, but his showboating gets him frequently in trouble with his CO (the principal from Back to the Future in basically the exact same role). Still, when the only “better” pilot hands in his wings after a panic attack during a non-violent showdown, Maverick and his co-pilot Goose (Anthony Edwards, moving on from Revenge of the Nerds but still years away from ER) are accepted to the Top Gun academy, an elite training program for the Air Force’s best pilots to learn the art of dogfighting, believing it to be key to air superiority.
(Pilots don’t actually dogfight much anymore, new planes rely more on long-range weapons, but Platoon is all about soldiers being bullies and committing war crimes, and that’s not still… oh. Right.)
Maverick’s out to prove he’s the best, and head trainer Viper (Tom Skerritt) thinks maybe he is, but Maverick’s a… well… what’s a good word for “someone who doesn’t fall in line and flaunts the rules on frequent occasions…” He also ends up in a rivalry with the less genial Iceman (Val Kilmer, making a generation of dudes want the nickname “Iceman”), and faces a tragedy when a series of accidents leads to a tragic loss. Can he get past that in time to prove he is, in fact, the best in a dogfight with those unnamed “enemy” fighters from the top of the movie (Let’s be clear, they’re way too white to be anything but Russian)? Well yes, obviously yes.
Top Gun feels a little cookie-cutter. Maverick gets in trouble with the higher-ups but deep down they know he’s great; that hot lady from the Department of Defense rebuffs his advances at first because she doesn’t date pilots but gives in; the guy with the loving family is not long for this world. All very common go-to tropes. And I am not giving Top Gun bonus points for being first to market because I have no proof that it was, Platoon did one of those, I have to imagine the other two also have precedents. And even if they don’t it’s hard to imagine not being a step ahead of this movie. Why are they showing us everything Goose has to live for (including being married to a young America’s Sweetheart Meg Ryan) if nothing bad’s gonna happen to him? Surely the point of Maverick making all these mistakes is that he learns and rises above them in a much higher stakes scenario. They’ve been playing Take My Breath Away for five minutes, it’s clear they’re not gonna stop until this DOD lady has been full-on seduced by Maverick.
It’s a little draggy in the middle and pretty cookie-cutter, but the cast is putting their backs into it, which I appreciate. The flight sequences are impressive. It’s fine. Pleasant enough, unless you hate Tom Cruise in which case yeah you’ll have a bad time.
Still, for the first time this decade, I’m saying the Best Picture was, in fact, the better movie.
And Rotten Tomatoes Says: The critics found little to care about between air battles, which I definitely understand, leading to a dismal 54%. Audiences were more forgiving with and 83%.
What Links Them? They’re both about military people dealing with hostile leadership, rivalries, and mostly faceless enemies. Also they both get weirdly homoerotic for a bit right in the middle. I know you knew Top Gun did that but it’s Platoon as well.
What’s the Mashup? Top Platoon opens on a bar in Saigon, where two men are on R&R. Private Chris Taylor came to fight the good fight but has seen the war twist men into monsters. Captain Pete Mitchell feels the man and his rules are standing between him and being the best pilot in southern Asia. Taylor smashes a bottle over his head, and does a week in lock-up with a smile on his face.
Other Events in Film
- At number two by under $2 million, Crocodile Dundee brings North American fascination with Australia to all-time highs. As The Simpsons episode “Bart Vs. Australia” taught us, it didn’t take. I’d have rather revisited that one but here we are.
- John Carpenter makes the best US martial arts action comedy America has or will ever know in Big Trouble in Little China, that’s just objective truth.
- This year in sequels… Xenomorphs got more numerous under James Cameron in Aliens, Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi go to Japan in Karate Kid Part II, and Admiral Kirk visits the 80s to save the whales in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
- John Hughes showed off his teen comedy James Bond in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
- Edwin Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith found Pixar Animation Studios.
- Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker try to move past parody films with Ruthless People.
- Disney escapes bankruptcy from the failure of The Black Cauldron with their Sherlock Holmes riff, The Great Mouse Detective. Do they thank it? No. Not a single plush Ratigan to be found at Disneyland.
- They also re-release Song of the South once more before burying it forever.
- The Great Mouse Detective does not, however, beat Amblin Entertainment and Disney rival Don Bluth’s An American Tail at the box office.
- Hasbro tries to roll out a new toy line but accidentally traumatizes millions of children when they kill (among others) Optimus Prime in Transformers: The Movie. Which also happens to feature the final film appearance of Orson Welles, as the voice of planet-sized Transformer Unicron. Can’t help but think William Heart’s ghost had a chuckle at that. Earlier 1986 release GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords wishes it had that kind of impact.
- Immortals fight to the beheaded death in Highlander, which would lead to some terrible film sequels and a pretty okay TV show. Christopher Lambert plays a Scotsman with a French accent trained in immortal combat by a Spanish-named Egyptian played by the most obviously and notoriously Scottish actor in the business, Sean Connery.
- George Lucas and Jim Henson team up to make Labyrinth, and if they didn’t want anyone to have a sexual awakening watching it maybe having David Bowie star and write/perform five songs wasn’t the way to go.
- A less successful collaboration? Lucas writes and Francis Ford Coppola directs… Disneyland’s 3-D movie Captain Eo, starring Michael Jackson. Not what any of us wanted those two’s big collab to be.
- George Lucas part three: The first big-screen outing for a Marvel Comics character is… Howard the Duck, produced by Lucas. Readers, stuff like this is why superhero movies needed over two decades after Superman to really take root.
- I don’t owe any musical a rewatch like I do Little Shop of Horrors.
- It may not deserve a mention here but The Wraith, starring Charlie Sheen, is one part Fast and Furious, one part The Crow, and a dash of Ghost, and involves a sheriff played by Randy Quaid closing multiple homicides by essentially saying “Yep, murder ghost, nothing to be done about it,” so I need you to know that it exists and is on Prime.
- I have been warned that if I truly love The Three Amigos with Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Chevy Chase, I should avoid rewatching it to see if it holds up. It is the reason I still sometimes reassure people I’m not bailing on a thing by saying “I’m still here, El Guapo,” despite a) most people not getting the reference, and b) the guy who said that died immediately after.
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