It’s surprising that the letterboxed synopsis for writer-director Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Vietnam is so brief when the film itself is so packed with moments that the synopsis doesn’t capture. It’s an intricate film with many moving parts and – some might suspect – a narrative that eschews any sort of straightforward plot; Rather, the production introduces viewers to a number of components of the Vietnam experience, broadly capturing individual moments of Chris’ experiences in Vietnam until they finally crystallize in the image immortalized on the film poster. Still, the film doesn’t fail to elicit an emotional response from these sometimes incoherent scenes.
Central to Chris’ journey is the naivety he brings to this heart of darkness. His privileged life separates him from the complicated nature of Vietnam and the soldiers who fought there. He wasn’t drafted to go there. He does not understand the social dynamics that separate the various soldiers and is therefore blinded by his own presumption that people will do the right thing when asked. Perhaps, as Chris begins to understand the tug-of-war he’s now participating in, he also doesn’t understand how precarious his moral foundation can be. As with Golding Lord of the flies or Coppolas apocalypse nowthe writing is tragically illuminated here: “If you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
And it’s a cold, steely stare. It does train one of the most provocative war films ever produced.
What features make it special?
The audio commentary by writer-director Oliver Stone highlights just how much of the film is truly autobiographical. Stone often points out in his comments that many of the characters in the film are based on people he knew in Vietnam, and the stories are, by and large, uncomfortably unchanged. Because of this, it sometimes feels like Stone is recounting his own experiences during the war rather than giving us an in-depth look at the film-making process, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that – as great as train is – perhaps it was less about the process of filmmaking and more about Stone absolving himself – justifying himself, whatever – it’s complicated, once again – from the experience.
The One War, Many Stories documentary is also worth your time. This recorded conversation of Vietnam veterans who saw the film illustrates their experiences and how they deal with them more than it attempts to legitimize the film’s details. But that’s the whole point: everyone’s experiences of war are different, and Stone’s film only captures Charlies (which is effectively Stones), but hearing about the aftermath of that war from some veterans is a sobering experience for the viewer.
Why you need to add it to your video library:
Here the peculiarities dominate, illustrating many of the truths that we seem to have forgotten over time. The Vietnam conflict was a class war in which most of its American participants were from the underclass. In his commentary, Stone frequently reveals that the film captures such an experience he lived. It’s not the ultimate experience, Stone suggests here, and that’s what makes the film effective. It doesn’t deprive anyone of their own experience or perspective, and perhaps those viewers who don’t get into the specifics are suspicious of Stone’s narrative. Thankfully, Stone has a diverse cast from diverse backgrounds that hopefully won’t go unnoticed by those particular viewers.
Plus you see so many familiar faces there train that you have seen before in movies like Ferris turns blue (1986) and you will see that later in The doors (1991) and point break (1986). Stone didn’t know it at the time, but he was making a film full of everyday faces that we had met or would soon remember. Neighbors. family. And despite their transience here – because many of them wouldn’t make it home – they put a face to something so many of us would no longer understand as the alien warscape.
It ensures that even as we observe this otherworldly interplay, it still feels like home, if only sometimes.
Maybe that’s what makes it more painful.
train is now available here on Blu-ray.