Our fascination with war movies springs from the perennial question: What is it like? And other questions follow: What is it like to be in combat? To know that you may be killed at any moment? To kill other human beings? To lie under harrowing conditions? To test one's skills and to be tested?

With Platoon, writer and director Oliver Stone has given us a gripping, powerful, and poignant view of the Vietnam War. The drama reveals the hallucinatory quality of battle, the high toll of fighting under the strain of combat for many months, the consequences of extreme situations, the alternative current of fear and craziness, the perversity of violence induced by frustration, and the loss of all sensibility except the will to survive.

The war is seen through the eyes of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a 21-year-old grunt who arrives in Vietnam in 1967. Terrified, he freezes in a pre-dawn jungle ambush and is wounded. The first person to take an interest in him is King (Keith David), a black soldier.

The two most dominant men in the platoon are Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), a psychopathic veteran who gets high on combat, and Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe), a sensitive leader who looks out for his troops even though he thinks the war has already been lost. Similar to many of the young soldiers in the unit, Chris feels like "a child born of those two fathers."

It takes a brutal descent into hell — an encounter during which some members of the platoon go berserk and kill Vietnamese villagers — before Chris realizes that Sergeant Elias is the one who should be his mentor. In the bloody finale, when the enemy attacks the platoon's base camp, the insanity, violence, and evil of the war finally overtake Chris.

The film is meant to convey the multi-dimensional reality of the Vietnam War to those who did not fight there and to those who were born after it ended. Platoon is a tour de force with excellent ensemble performances by the full cast.