Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick)
The eccentricity of Stanley Kubrick’s later career reaches what may be its confounding peak with Full Metal Jacket, his ambiguous Vietnam War film which is abstractly structured, only obtusely political, horrendously real yet disturbingly artificial (having been shot not deeply in Cambodian jungles but in an abandoned gas works in Great Britian), and overall a brief and throttling experiment. It’s overwhelming, and perversely beautiful in its awfulness. My stepdad served in Vietnam, was stationed at Phu Bai where much of this film takes place, and tells me it’s the only accurate movie about that war. The transition from first act to second remains jarring, but I’ve come around to it over the years — I realize now that it’s a cause-and-effect thing, that all the rhyming within what Private Joker sees and hears around him is how we mark the transition of men to machines, of sharpness to hardness.
Most reviews cite the film’s chief flaw as the fact that its gripping first act, forty-five minutes in a world of Boot Camp shit, harrowing and as madly paced as anything in the director’s canon, seems considerably more compelling than the rest of the movie (and indeed is an entirely different kind of storytelling, nearly the opposite). I always looked upon the opening portion as an outstanding short which was then negated by a somewhat aimless narrative that followed once the movie strolled into Vietnam, lazily tracking the activities of a small group of soldiers just after the Tet Offensive as they hire hookers, listen to rock & roll, laze around in the sun, voice considerable angst, and then are faced with an unexpected challenge. On repeated viewings, however, the experiment works; the senselessness and apathy come to the forefront during the aftermath of the overwhelmingly tragic basic training scenes, and by the last twenty minutes, the pace has picked back up and one feels incredibly tense as the soldiers attempt to cope with a ruthless sniper. The film’s complete turnaround less than halfway through is still a radical choice for Kubrick, but as more time goes by, one increasingly senses the method to the madness, the inevitability, the insanity. One must admire Kubrick for taking this unusual route, not to mention the alarming parallels he draws between the two halves through both composition and sound design — though, of course, this holds for his entire body of work.
The economy on display here, meanwhile (one distinct, focused story and one divided into harrowing vignettes in under two hours), somewhat proves that Kubrick’s longer films were long because they couldn’t be short. This can be — it feels excruciatingly long by the home stretch. The Parris Island sequence so brilliantly evokes the casual cruelty of a military culture and the resultant onset of madness, while the less traditionally Kubrickian (and marginally less gripping, but just as poetic) scenes from the heat of the war illustrate the consequences of sending a destroyed soul to fight for supposed good. All the calm racism and sexism, shocking as it is, we slowly discover to be a sick defense mechanism against a “world of shit.” The young men populating the cast — Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin and especially the haunting Vincent D’Onofrio — are painfully believable, though perhaps no one has ever made such a quick and lasting impression in a Kubrick film as R. Lee Ermey as the barking Sgt. Hartman, an unforgettable movie villain in the vein of Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove, far more three-dimensional than the military lifers of Paths of Glory. Though Jacket was initially posited as the beginning of several promising careers, Ermey is the real star born here, a singular portrait of ingrained hatred and Marine brutality. Ermey is funny too, but mostly he’s a figure of menace because he’s a human being, easily reduced to a mess of flesh as scared as anybody, if only in the final seconds of his life.
Full Metal Jacket is sufficiently critical of macho posturing (and generic writing; see Platoon) that it’s almost a war movie for those of us who don’t typically care for the genre — there’s just so much more to unearth here, however unpleasant, and the only real extended action scene, the climax, is so unbearably intense as to be exhausting. Its big reveal is a question mark. Are you shocked? Why? Though the focus is entirely on Americans, we don’t look good here — the horror we create lurks behind every corner of that immaculately constructed, gigantic set. Jacket lets no one become a mouthpiece for the director’s viewpoint, but simultaneously exposes compassion in us, and the slow death of compassion in the dregs of war. By comparison, Apocalypse Now seems to have nothing to do with war experience.
To top this off, it’s one of the director’s most beautifully shot films. Just as in The Shining, claustrophobia and freedom are both resourcefully and artfully used, and nearly every scene is mounted gloriously; along with being one of the most realistic war movies ever made, it is the most gorgeous. Except for All Quiet on the Western Front, no other movie gives the proper sick feeling, the emptiness, the grudging appreciation of life that comes at the finale. In the world of war films, it is easily on a scale with Paths of Glory. Like all of Kubrick’s films, it seems to reveal more each time. Modine’s sporadic voiceover, by the way, is remarkable and epitomizes this movie’s achievement in two specific moments: “The dead have been covered in lime; the dead only know one thing: it is better to be alive” and the closing, heartbreaking monologue, under which we watch the children’s crusade marching by singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme. There is no glamour here. Only Mickey Mouse bullshit.
[Mostly derived from a 2007 review of WB’s Kubrick boxed set. Some brief additions.]