Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, August 28, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1987)

12. Full Metal Jacket

In the early eighties, there was a sudden wave of films about the Vietnam War. It seems enough time had past that America could look past the psychic scars the war left on the country and start examining why that conflict turned out the way it did. After “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Platoon,” but before “Hamburger Hill” and “84 Charlie MoPic,” came “Full Metal Jacket.” It was another project of Kubrick's that rose out of failure. He originally met with writer Michael Herr to create a film a long simmering film about the Holocaust. Instead, the conversation turned towards the Vietnam War. The two decided to adapt Gustav Hasford's novel, “The Short-Timers.”  It would become another critical success for the director and remains one of the most iconic films about the Vietnam War.

Private James T. Davis, one of many new recruits, is sent off to Parris Island, South Carolina for basic training. He sarcastically states his desire to become a killer. There, he undergoes a brutal training regiment from a sadistic drill sergeant, Sgt. Hartman. He is nicknamed Pvt. Joker. A particular target of Hartman's abuse is Private Lawrence, who is cruelly nicknamed Gomer Pyle. Hartman's cruel words and actions break Lawrence down, who murders the drill sergeant before killing himself. Following this disaster, Davis ships off for Vietnam. Working as a war correspond, he witnesses the cruelty and violence firsthand. And, in time, he achieves his goal of becoming a killer.

Warfare is a topic Kubrick has revisited many times over his career. “Full Metal Jacket's” focus is more keen than the war time settings of “Fear and Desire,” “Spartacus,” or “Barry Lyndon.” “Paths of Glory” was more focused on criticizing the mechanism of war. “Full Metal Jacket,” however, is all about the dehumanizing process soldiers go through. The film begins with a montage of the characters having their heads shaved, stripping their individuality away. After arriving in basic training, Hartman gives each of the recruits humiliating nicknames. He frequently emphasizes that they are now property of the U.S. Marine Corps. The goal of the military is to turn normal people into heartless killing machine, to strip away their empathy for other humans. “Full Metal Jacket” is keenly focused on the cruelty of this process, showing how the brutality of war begins at home.

At the center of this thesis is Pvt. Lawrence, henceforth known as Pvt. Pyle. Vincent D'onofrio's doughy appearance makes him stand out among the other soldiers. Immediately, Hartman starts abusing the boy, choking him out within minutes of meeting him. He is repeatedly humiliated, forced to march in his underwear, sit aside and suck his thumb, or chew a doughnut in the middle of the room. This is in addition to the constant vitriol Hartman spews at him. This behavior even turns the other recruits against the boy, who beat him with bars of soap in a particularly harrowing scene. However, the corps succeeds in stripping away Pyle's humanity. It succeeds a little too well, turning Pyle into an unhinged murderer. There's no room for vulnerability, no basic humanity, in the military. And that can have devastating effects, even before anyone sees combat.

Of course, there's a slight problem with the film's first half, which undermines Kubrick's point a little. Gunnery Sgt. Hartman is supposed to be a despicable villain. He technically is but he's also the most entertaining, memorable character in the film. The part would take R. Lee Ermey from a career as a technical advisory and bit part actor to an icon of military films. Kubrick allowed Ermey to improvise, quite unusual for the exacting filmmaker, so most of  Hartman's screeds are Ermey's own. There's no doubt that the creatively profane verbiage is frequently hilarious. The character may be one of cinema's biggest assholes, a racist and a bully, but Ermey's unique ways with words made him an audience favorite. Ermey provides the film with a propulsive energy that it never quite recovers after he exits the story.

Ermey ends up being the start of the show but Matthew Modine, as Pvt. Joker, is still a solid lead. From his earliest scene, Modine emphasizes the character's youthful sarcasm and cynicism. Joker may be “in the shit” but he often greets these scenarios with bitter humor. He often jokes about becoming a killer. Yet Joker doesn't honestly mean this, as he's one of the few people to be sympathetic to Pyle. Even after going overseas, he displays more humanity to his other soldiers and combatants than those around him. It's only in the final scene where Joker finally becomes a killer, an act which weighs heavily on his mind. Modine is extremely good in the role, utilizing his youthful energy and wit perfectly.

Over his last four films, Kubrick had push the technical precision of his direction to its breaking point, sometimes to the determent of the stories. “Full Metal Jacket” shows the director loosening up in some ways. The stillness is mixed more freely with movement, building off “The Shining's” Steadicam shots. The constant speed of the marching and training sequence propels the whole film forward, even into the more conversation-based second half. Kubrick also employs his old documentary-style during the wartime sequences, adding some gritty realism. Kubrick saves his trademark chilly detachment for key moments. Such as the sequence where Pyle finally cracks, where his stare shows a crystal clear, chilling psychosis. It's clear that Kubrick didn't leave his mastery creeping unease at the Overlook Hotel.

A common criticism has dogged “Full Metal Jacket” since it came out: The second half isn't as interesting as the first. It's true that pop culture has seemingly forgotten everything in the film outside the basic training sequences. The second half of the film, the scenes actually set in Vietnam, do suffer from an episodic format. Pvt. Joker leaps from location, leaving the newspaper office after its attacked. Encounters with enemy soldiers, prostitutes, documentary filmmakers, and graves of dead bodies follow. While it's true that these scenes lack the drive and focus of the first half, they remain interesting. The episodic format is seemingly intentional, giving us bits and pieces of life in the battlefield. It's not like wartime, or real life for that matter, has a coherent narrative flow. “Full Metal Jacket's” second half accurately reflects the day-to-day anxiety a solider must feel.

It might wander a bit in its second half but “Full Metal Jacket” finds itself again by the time it reaches its chilling climax. The final episode of the film concerns Joker and the other men pinned down by a Vietcong sniper. Kubrick saves the most graphic violence of the film for this sequence. Whole bloody chunks are blown out of the men, flying through the air, by the sniper's bullets. Kubrick employs slow motion in these scenes, emphasizing the men's agony. In this moment, the cruelty and brutality of war is magnified. The sudden sounds of the bullets firing, often blowing men away unexpectedly, makes this a fierce, intense scene. It provides a proper climax for the somewhat ramshackle second half of the film.

The nature of the sniper is important to understand how the film fits into Kubrick's overall career. Once again, the director returns to the ugliness of masculinity run among. Sgt. Hartman directly links killing with sex. He frequently references sex. He makes the men give their rifles female names, referring to them as their girlfriends. In one notable sequences, he compares the purpose of the gun and the purpose of the penis. Once they're on the field, the men continue to talk about sex, directly correlating the act of war with the act of the masculine conquering the feminine. Let's return to that sniper, who is revealed to be a teenage girl. That a young girl could ruthlessly kill three full grown men is a subversion, and therefore disruption, of the soldier's macho status as cold-blooded killers. Like “Dr. Strangelove,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon” and “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” saw Kubrick criticizing and dismantling toxic masculinity before that phrase was even invented.

Modine, Ermey, and D'onofrio dominate the film but the supporting cast is full of other notable actors. Arliss Howard appears as Pvt. “Cowboy,” the only real friend Joker makes during basic training. The characters have an amusing rapport and Howard makes the character memorable despite his small role. Adam Baldwin appears as an especially gung-ho soldier, nicknamed Animal Mother. Baldwin would go on to a solid career and it's easy to see why, as he's impressive in the part, swaggering in a way that's slightly unhinged. Lastly, Peter Edmund appears as Pvt. “Snowball” and is memorably strictly because of how amusing his wide-eyed scream is.

Kubrick displays the same attention to detail to this film's late sixties/early seventies setting as he did to the Napoleonic Europe setting in “Barry Lyndon.” If that film allow Kubrick to indulge his love of classical music, he deploys period pop music as often here. Johnnie Wright's “Hello Vietnam” is effectively utilized in the opening scene. The purity of the Dixie Cups' “Chapel of Love” is ironically played while a prostitute courts two soldiers. “Wooly Bully” and “Surfin' Bird” show up memorably in two separate montage, providing the upbeat pop songs contrasting against the carnage of war. The Rolling Stones' “Paint It Black” also work well over the end credits. (Weirdly, the movie would also spawn a hit single. “Full Metal Jacket (I Wanna Be Your Drill Instructor)” would mix sound bites from the film with rap and rock music. It went to number two on the U.K. pop charts.)

Despite receiving universal acclaim, “Full Metal Jacket” would get widely snubbed at the Academy Awards. It only received one nomination, in the Adapted Screenplay category. It was yet another example of the Academy barely acknowledging Kubrick. All that aside, “Full Metal Jacket” would quickly become an iconic war film, its image of a sadistic drill sergeant being ripped off by many other movies and TV shows. Despite some serious flaws, it's yet another masterpiece from the legendary director. [Grade: A]      

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