Another Look: Full Metal Jacket (***)

Full Metal Jacket – 1987

Director Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford
Starring Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood, Arliss Howard, Kevyn Major Howard, Ed O’Ross

When it was released in 1987, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was at the end of a long line of films about Vietnam. It suffered in the eyes of filmgoers. It’s $43 million gross was good, but did not compare to the likes of Apocalypse Now, Good Morning Vietnam, Platoon or Rambo I and II. My original feeling was that while it is a great film in the first half, particularly in regards to Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and D’Onofrio’s Private Pile. It loses something when they move from that scene to the theater of war.

Hearing an in depth analysis on the podcast Movie Crush earlier this week convinced me to give the film one more try. There is much credit given to the film being two equal parts of a whole. The scenes of the war give the impression of a military that is ill-equipped to care about those with whom they are engaging, even if they completely understand what they are there to do to them.

The story, for the uninitiated, starts in training camp for the Vietnam war. A vicious, but fair Gunnery Sergeant (played brilliantly by Ermey) brutalizes a list of young recruits, including D’Onofrio’s Pyle and Modine’s Joker. The scenes and tension building is fascinating, if a little brisk. One almost feels that the viewer themselves have suffered the indignities of being broken down and built back up by the horrible and charismatic Gunnery Sergeant. Ermey’s genius dialogue and even his character is completely his own. If for no other reason, the film is worth watching for every frame he inhabits.

Unfortunately the movie doesn’t stay in training camp. The moment it goes off to war, the result is frustrating, stark and pessimistic to a fault. Kubrick’s lens and dialogue is too on the nose to be an effective commentary. This is especially true when it comes to the reporters interviewing the soldiers and the presentation of the only three women of the film. To hear Kubrick tell it, women have only two functions in a war. Perhaps the messages are derivative of his anti-war leanings, or even just a product of timing and plot structure. Either way, it’s hollow ring feels more mechanical than the very human experience of the first half. Of course this is the “Full Metal Jacket” that we’re supposed to be experiencing. This is Kubrick’s intent. To show hollowed out shells of beings only interested in killing what they can’t have sex with and sometimes killing even that. The very next line, they wax poetic, like vessels for someone else’s editorial, about how they’re killing the very finest human beings they’re ever going to meet.

That’s the problem here. In dispensing with the humanity of the soldiers on the field, somehow Kubrick thinks we’ve got to believe they’re going to be able to pass on a rash of complicated soliloquies about life. Their philosophic rhapsodies go right in hand with a wink and nod at racist statements made to their fellow soldiers, whom they obviously treasure as part of their brotherhood. The racism is to fool the ones at home who thinks they’re all dumb hicks. These aren’t characters. They’re just automatons reading the words of their superiors, the writer.

It’d be one thing if these complicated thoughts were limited to Joker and maybe one other character, like Cowboy (Howard). They are littered throughout with no thought of whether the thought process makes sense for each character.

There’s a moment when the platoon is doing a sweep of an area. They’re spread out and no one is taking cover. The squad leader walks through a hollowed out building and picks up a giant stuffed animal. Of course it’s attached to a bomb and he’s dead. Three others, including Joker and Cowboy, stand over the body. Joker says to Cowboy that it looks like he’s in charge now. Cowboy grins and kind of chuckles. What a morning, I guess. So much for the last guy in charge.

A few scenes later, they’re approaching another area after learning they were going the wrong way. One guy is sent out on his own. Walks right in the center of three buildings, Shot in the leg by a sniper. Cowboy wants to retreat and cut their losses. No, this guy is so important, several men ignore his orders and then put the whole platoon in jeopardy. Why not just chuckle about this guy? Because they need a higher body count of guys in green.

This says nothing about the arbitrary nature of when the soldiers are wary of snipers and when they are not. It boils down to plot points, not common sense. When you want to see the group gathering morale? Then have them walk among burning buildings singing Mickey Mouse Club. When you want to have them act tense? Make them cower behind something after one of them has been picked off. Want more to join the wounded? Disobey orders and head towards your buddy who’s down. These aren’t people who were trained for combat. These are actors pushing a plot forward.

Too bad Sgt. Hartman isn’t there, barking at them. I would even take Sgt. Hulka sticking his big toe up their collective asses.

In total, this film means the same thing to me that it did back in 1987. It’s schizophrenic and frustrating. In the effort to make mirror images of life before and after being honed into the “full metal jacket” they forgot to make the story a believable one. It might have been more effective if the characters were more than just big, dumb mouthpieces of some of the post poetic prose you ever did hear about war. Or if they’d just stuck with Hartman until the end.

(*** out of *****)

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