Full Metal Jacket. 1987. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick, Michael Herr, & Gustav Hasford; based on the novel The Short-Timers by Hasford.
Starring Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood, Arliss Howard, Keyn Major Howard, & Ed O’Ross. Warner Bros/Natant/Stanley Kubrick Productions.
Rated R. 117 minutes.
I forever will love Stanley Kubrick. I don’t care how many hacks come out of the woodwork trying to say he’s not as good as everyone makes him seem, that keeping his genius alive is supposedly trying to be artsy and yadda yadda yadda. Can’t believe the way many supposed film fans talk about film online. Then again, the ones clamouring all over the message boards aren’t the best representation of objectivity.
Full Metal Jacket is simply another instance of the brilliance that was Kubrick. Every bit of his impeccable style is on display – lots of perfectly composed frames, sweeping and gorgeous tracking shots, among much more. Having already taken a look into war, Kubrick opts to turn his attention to the viciousness of the Vietnam War. Of course it’s based on the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, so one of these days I’ll have to read it. Because among all the humorous moments weaved through the screenplay, the disturbing scenes, the unsettling visions of war and its affects, there’s deep things happening. Maybe some see it as a typical anti-war film. I see it as an in-depth examination of war, its effects and consequences. Mainly, Full Metal Jacket seeks to point out the damage war does to those who fight it, those against whom it’s fought, as well as everything and everyone it touches. There are other great war movies that try and get to the heart of these issues. This is one of the greatest.
Certainly there are disturbing moments. The first one, obviously, is when the other Marines-in-training throw a Blanket Party for Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). His wails alone are enough to sicken you emotionally. Perhaps the deepest cut is the fact Private Joker (Matthew Modine) joins in right at the end, despite his reservations. Creepier still is the vacant look in the eye of Pyle afterwards, as the others chant along with their Gunnery Sergeant. This all extends until that fateful moment in the bathroom where Pyle finally takes action. Albeit dangerous, ill-advised action. All the scenes leading up to this after the Blanket Party are unsettling, constantly catching the disaffected look now on Pyle’s face. Finally realizing he is alone in the struggle, no longer even with the helpful hand and watching eye of Joker. This is the entire emotional crux of the film’s plot, despite all the other elements of Vietnam and the action going on there. Pyle’s actions taint everything in the movie, everything for Joker, after what he does, and you can never forget it. Neither can Joker. For him, and the viewer, the atrocities of war begin long before they ever set foot on the battlefield against the enemy.
Part of why Kubrick makes this movie disturbing is because he shows us how certain people become brainwashed by the military. Not everyone, but many do succumb to it. At least back when Vietnam was raging, anyway. Nowadays there’s a little more disillusionment with the heroic idea of military service; not any part of the soldiers, though, rather the blood is on the hands of the government. And that comes through here in how we see Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) drilling and drilling and drilling the rhetoric in their heads. The reason things are as disturbing as they get is due to the fact Kubrick plays things in both comedic and serious light. For instance, Ermey’s amazing performance as the loud and foul-mouthed Gunnery Sergeant is definitely funny in that he pulls out a bunch of incredible insults, yet it’s terrible at the same time. There’s a way to train soldiers physically and mentally. Not sure this is how they ought to do it. In this day and age things are apparently much different. Kubrick uses that old school military bravado, the constant emasculating jabs and the constructions of masculinity that go along with the whole lifestyle, and he turns that on its head. Funny in the one moment. Serious a little later when we see how far it drives certain soldiers, like the poor, damaged Private Pyle. Sure, the platoon jogs around Parris Island and chants Hartman’s funny sound-offs. Underneath that is a darker reality. These aren’t rhymes to keep the young soldiers interested. It’s deflection. Hartman lures them in with funny, crude rhymes and jokes when really he’s hypnotizing them and brainwashing each last willing participant. Sadly, the way Pyle chooses to get out is probably better off. In a way, he’s spared all the terror, both real and existential, of the Vietnam War experience.
Joker: “Leonard, if Hartman comes in here and catches us, we‘ll both be in a world a‘ shit.”
Pyle: “I am in a world of shit”
When Hartman asks “What is this Mickey Mouse shit?” there’s not an immediate realization of how much depth that question carries. He doesn’t live to see what it goes on to mean. However, it’s clear to the audience by the time the credits roll. Both this film and Oliver Stone’s Platoon dig deep into the world of the military we’re not often given a look at. Usually we, especially Americans, are inundated with the idea that everything about the military, the soldiers, is patriotic, as if they can do no wrong. Instead of trying to make some hero’s tale, Kubrick – along with Michael Herr and writer of the novel on which the film is based Gustav Hasford – dissects the finer points, wondering exactly how these men coped with the training, which is rough enough, only to find themselves thrown into a war they don’t understand, one they maybe shouldn’t have been fighting.
Aside from simply the military, this is obviously aimed directly at Vietnam as a whole. Even in the smallest moments it’s evident. Joker and Private Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) walk back to base at one point, as the latter remarks: “We‘re supposed to be helping them and they shit all over us every chance they get.” This one single line exemplifies exactly the ignorant bliss in which so many Americans (both citizen and soldier) wallow because of the stories they were fed at the time. Everybody thought they were there to do some good, save people; America, saviours of the world. Yet they did some hideous things to the people there, not just military troops. Part of Kubrick’s commentary is that many of these people become sucked into the whole rhetoric and machismo of war, particularly the young men. So the fact these guys don’t see anything wrong with their role, the American role in Vietnam during the war is part and parcel of the brainwashing. We further see this in Joker’s continual reference/impersonation of John Wayne, as the ultimate representation of the American ideal of the tough guy, the absolute hero, the one and only MAN’s MAN. Hell, a portion of the brainwashing started before they even got to training. In addition, the desensitization comes nastier later when Joker and the others joke about fucking sisters, mothers, so on; this shows how emotionally stunted these guys have become after so long. Worse still, later when the Marines are being interviewed by a camera crew Rafterman acts like a big, tough killer, holding his rifle up with some bravado bullshit and pretending to have whipped his gun out all over the place. Joker doesn’t pretend to have already killed, though makes clear he wants to kill – supposedly. It all began the first time Joker and the rest of those hypnotized soldiers saw an amped up American classic where the men weren’t allowed to show emotion, only the flare and smoke off the muzzle of their gun as they blew it away after blowing some other poor soul away, or only the fire of lust on some young woman cast specifically to look good next to the American cowboy hero.
Kubrick really does the war genre a solid. Full Metal Jacket has an amazingly strong first half. The second half isn’t any less strong, it just diverges from the brainwashing angle of the plot a little more. That doesn’t mean this aspect disappears. As we’re thrown “into the shit” alongside Joker, we slowly come to discover how one man and his principles can change over the course of time. More so if he’s subjected to the horrors of war, both deliberately and purposefully. At the same time, there’s a degree of self-realization. By the finish, Joker hasn’t exactly become totally engrained in the system. At one point he brings up “the duality of man“, all that “Jungian thing” and so on. This is the epitome of Joker. Nearing the end, he gives in and kills a sniper in mercy. This is his way of surviving that world of shit of which he and Pyle spoke. Although, coming full circle to Hartman’s words the men all sing “Mickey Mouse March” and head off in the distance, towards the next atrocity. So in a way, Joker and the others realize it’s all a bunch of Mickey Mouse shit. Yet as Joker, for him, a world of shit it may be, but being alive is better than being dead. After seeing some of what the dead endured, his mind may not have been totally warped. It may, in a mysterious way, be saved.