Monday, August 28, 2017
Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1987)
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.
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.
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 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.)
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]