by Brek the David
Full Metal Jacket (1987) Director: Stanley Kubrick Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustov Hasford. Starring: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, R.Lee Ermey OSCAR COUNT (0)
Private Joker: I wanted to see exotic Vietnam… the crown jewel of Southeast Asia. I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture… and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill!
A film of two contrasting parts, Full Metal Jacket is not Stanley Kubrick’s best film, but it can hold its own with those not named 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Dr. Strangelove. Full Metal Jacket is an unflinching, uncompromising, yet unbiased look at the Vietnam War (and war in general). I suppose bias is all about perspective, and I don’t know about Kubrick’s thoughts on his own film, but it definitely seemed to me that he strove hard to be as realistic and true to the era and conflict as he could. For me I think people can watch Full Metal Jacket and different people will take away different things. This is the mark of a master filmmaker. I know people that are appalled by it, and I know people that are inspired by it. I don’t really trust those inspired by it, but it’s their prerogative. And while Full Metal Jacket is appalling, that is the point. It’s an examination of the human psyche under the stress and rigors of war. War is appalling so humans will do appalling things.
Nothing is glorified here. There are no false heroics and no propaganda to show American soldiers as the paragon of humanity. On the contrary, the American soldiers depicted are just like everyone else, and they do terrible things. It’s not to say they’re terrible people though. The US drafted from the population to wage this unnecessary war. Almost all of these men were there against their will. Also, the Marines train their soldiers to be killers. That’s what soldiers do; they kill their enemies. To get into the mind of a killer the first part of the film is about training for the war, and the brainwashing, or acclimating the mind to violence, that goes on in boot camp. I use brainwashing for this era because, again, most of these men were here against their will.
Full Metal Jacket opens to shots of the draftees, soon to be soldiers, getting their heads shaved. Not knowing much about military protocol, this seems to be done to take away the individuality of the man. From that point forward he is part of a greater whole, a unit that must fight together as one. Fighting as one is much stronger than fighting as individuals, and it also makes the individual harder to kill. Dead soldiers can’t fight after all.
Then we get introduced to Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, a hard ass drill instructor that will put these men through the gauntlet, break them down, and re-forge them into killers. In what is one of the most memorable performances of all time, R. Lee Ermy, who plays Hartman to perfection, owns the screen every second he’s there. Hartman exudes authority and his is absolute; to these men he is God, and he will create them in the Corps’ image. Also introduced are Private Joker, Private Cowboy, and Private Pyle. It’s immediately clear that Pyle is just not cut out for this, and unfortunately it destroys him. Watching him descend into madness is frightening and tragic to watch, but again, nothing good comes from war.
Full Metal Jacket, like all Kubrick films, is shot with the eye of brilliance. Shots are framed such that they seem to convey as much as the actor’s performance. Something as austere as Marine Corps barracks adds incredible weight to the atmosphere as Hartman breaths fire on these men. These scenes are tense and uncomfortable to begin, but we the audience becomes used to it just like the soldiers until that unforgettable final showdown between Pyle, Joker, and Hartman.
After boot camp, the location turns to Vietnam sometime before/during the Tet Offensive. We’re shown the Marines now as full-fledged killers, and many are even psychopathic, like the fierce Animal Mother. However, you want psychopaths like Animal Mother getting your back if you’re in war; there is no question. Private Joker turns out to be a journalist, writing for a propaganda newspaper. Joker is an interesting character and a better actor would be more suited to play him than Matthew Modine, but Modine puts forth a decent effort. Here in Vietnam we see the horrors that Hartman was getting these men prepared for. The urban warfare depicted is brutal and sometimes hard to watch as the film closes with an intense sniper standoff sequence that will haunt you long after the movie is over. I get a sick feeling in my gut every time I see this portion of the film, as it’s a very visceral and harrowing experience. Powerful, sickening, but always fascinating, Full Metal Jacket looks into the depths of ourselves when we’re at our worst. Collectively, since war still exists, we’re all struggling with our Shadows, a perpetual conflict that we must overcome before it consumes us.
DID YOU KNOW?: The majority of R.Lee Erney’s famous speech was improvised.