Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Posted: May 31, 2016 in Movie Review
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Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood, Arliss Howard, Kevyn Major Howard, Ed O’Ross

This is Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam. There are many war epics like “Full Metal Jacket,” but this one is Kubrick’s. Everything that one comes to expect from a Stanley Kubrick film is present here. From the wide shots that force the viewer to take in every detail of a given scene to the infamous “Kubrickian Stare” that is inevitably assumed by one character, “Full Metal Jacket” is as much like a Kubrick film as any of his other twelve projects. How it is different from the others is that “Full Metal Jacket” may be the only one to resemble two movies in one.

The first forty-five minutes, or the first (superior) act of “Full Metal Jacket” takes place in late 1967 at Parris Island, South Carolina, where a group of new recruits for the United States Marine Corps are undergoing basic training. Who these men were before they entered military service (whether willingly or by being drafted) is never explored, nor are their real names of any true significance. For the most part, the only identity these men will have as long as we will be acquainted with them are the nicknames assigned to them by Drill Instructor Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (Lee Ermey). Certain sections of the film come with narration from Private “Joker” (Matthew Modine). It’s a good thing, too, because the fact that Joker is meant to be thought of as the main character might otherwise be lost on us during this part of the film.

The main cause of our confusion is the attention given to the relationship between Sgt. Hartman and a fat, bumbling recruit named Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) whom Hartman has rechristened “Gomer Pyle.” Hartman is bound and determined to motivate Private Pyle into becoming a model soldier, a trained killer. Eventually, Joker is assigned to try and bring Pyle up to speed. The problem is that Hartman has underestimated just how fragile a human being that Pyle is. Over time, Sgt. Hartman’s excessively vulgar verbal abuse takes its toll on the psyche of Private Pyle, but the final straw is when Hartman begins punishing the rest of the platoon for Pyle’s constant screw-ups.

Frustrated, the platoon takes it out on the poor lad using bars of soap wrapped in towels, as part of a form of hazing known as a blanket party. This horrible act completely breaks Private Pyle. Although Pyle impresses Sgt. Hartman with his marksmanship skills, Joker sees what Hartman cannot. On the platoon’s final night on Parris Island before graduation, Joker finds Pyle in the bathroom loading his M14 rifle with live rounds of ammunition. Pyle creates enough of a commotion to awaken the entire platoon and Sgt. Hartman, who tells the other recruits to remain in their beds while he investigates the matter. Hartman attempts to coax Pyle into relinquishing his weapon, but fails. Hartman is shot through the chest and killed, while Joker watches in horror as Pyle turns his gun on himself.

The film’s second act, set in late January-early February 1968, moves the action to South Vietnam. Corporal Joker is now a war correspondent who is mocked for his lack of any real combat experience. His superiors question why he would choose to wear a peace symbol on his uniform at the same time as he also bears the words “BORN TO KILL” on his helmet. Any explanation he gives for his sense of irony only serves to confuse them further. Joker has managed to keep his nose clean thus far, but eventually the war finds its way to him. Taking advantage of a cease fire, the North Vietnamese launch the Tet Offensive. After surviving this, Joker next finds himself involved in the Battle of Huế . There, he and his photographer Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) meet up with Joker’s former Parris Island platoon mate Cowboy (Arliss Howard), who is forced to take command of his squad once his superior officers are struck down.

At some point, the squad takes a wrong turn and winds up under fire from a Vietcong sniper who takes out several members of the squad, including Cowboy who dies in Joker’s arms. The squad moves in and discovers that the sniper is a teenage girl. Joker tries to take her out but his gun jams. At the last instant, Joker is saved by Rafterman. Everyone except Joker feels the matter is settled. Noting that the sniper is still alive and suffering, Joker would prefer for something to be done. An agreement is reached, but only if Joker is the one to do the deed. Hesitating at first, Joker shoots the sniper dead. As the squad marches on to the tune of the “Mickey Mouse March,” Joker narrates that his current condition is that he’s “in a world of shit” but that he is glad to be alive and is without fear.

As with nearly all of Kubrick’s films, “Full Metal Jacket” is an outstanding motion picture, and one of the top movies about war. But it does wind up displaying a weakness stemming from a loss of momentum. This occurs as soon as actors Lee Ermey (a real-life former drill instructor) and Vincent D’Onofrio exit the story at the end of the film’s first half. I don’t have a solution for how this problem could have been fixed, because there’s no place for either character in the rest of the movie. I only know that both men put on such tour de force performances that it’s tough to work up as much enthusiasm for the remaining cast once they’re gone.

The conclusion that I come to is that war is unsympathetic to the individuals who participate in it, willingly or unwillingly… the same lesson I’ve drawn from “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon,” “The Best Years of Our Lives” and countless other war pictures like them. Repetition makes the point no less valid. In truth, it bears repeating as often as possible. It takes a director with the skill of a Stanley Kubrick to shout this message loud and clear and to make sure that we will still choose to pay attention.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Absolutely true. “We” have to be reminded because “we” still keep killing each other in pointless wars. I agree about the momentum in the first half, slowed down in the second half, but even life is like that sometimes, isn’t it?

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