Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Full Metal Jacket
Now I will belatedly review Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam opus Full Metal Jacket (1987), for the simple reason that I was tired last week of reviewing Kubrick movies. Of the crop of Vietnam films that came out in the '70s and '80s (Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Deer Hunter), and after a rewatch and many viewings of other Kubrick movies, I have to say that it is the best of both categories.
The film is divided into three distinct segments (not two, despite the common wisdom). The first segment is a high-intensity, darkly comic scene as a crop of Marine draftees - Private Joker (Matthew Modine), the cynical would-be writer, the Texan Private Cowboy (Arliss Howard), and Leonard Lawrence/"Gomer Pyle" (Vincent D'Onofrio), an overweight half-wit - arrive at Parris Island for their basic training, under the strict and bombastic guidance of the hardass Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), leading to horrific results as Pyle's incompetence evolves into full-blown psychosis. The second segment focuses on Joker's travels as a journalist for Stars and Stripes in Vietnam, during and immediately after the Tet Offensive, as he ultimately falls in with Cowboy's squad, which includes the gung-ho, borderline crazy Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin). The final sequence finds Joker and Cowoby's squad pinned down in Danang by a sniper, suffering heavily as they painstakingly attempt to root out their assailant in the midst of a bombed-out city.
It's a conventional wisdom among critics that the film's first "half" on Parris Island is brilliant while the rest of the film. As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman might say, this is bullshit of the highest order. Despite its deliberately fragmented, almost episodic storyline, Full Metal Jacket remains consistently gripping throughout. It's fair to say that the later segments of the film miss the high-intensity stand-off between Pyle and Hartman, but that doesn't mean that the film as a whole suffers from their departure from the story.
Like most of Kubrick's works, the film is overtly satirical, not only of Vietnam and the miltiary but of human nature in general. The main focus of the film is the deliberately dehumanizing affect that the military has on its members - most overt in the Parris Island training sequence, and the brilliantly staged hair-shaving montage which opens the film, but present throughout. Among Hartman's more outlandish statements is his praise of Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald as examples of what Marine Corps training results in - except that he upholds them as role models rather than cautionary tales, causing Pyle to take very much the wrong lessons out of his training. While some films like Sands of Iwo Jima and The Wind and the Lion, with their cavalier and unabashedly positive view of war and the military, might convince a more gullible or gung-ho viewer to join the Marines, Full Metal Jacket is the counter-argument; no one who goes into this film will want to go out and enlist after finishing it. This is not meant as a complement in and of itself, merely as an observation; if it is to be taken as a complement, then I think that it's because Kubrick very much set out to achieve this reaction.
Despite this generally negative view of the military, Kubrick does allow for some examination of the positive aspects that the military does bring to the table. Hartman's graduation day speech about the brotherhood of the Marine Corps is presented straight-forward and without comment, seemingly odd given the cartoonish nature of the character in other scenes. Hartman is fairly well-rounded despite his bellicose exterior, showing a genuine pride in the Marines and his country that would make him admirable in other circumstances. The soldiers themselves react to the training and the war in different ways; while those like Pyle and Animal Mother become psychopaths, others like Joker and Cowboy learn how to become, and more importantly to survive in combat. It's all well and good to be against the Vietnam War, but the characters in the film accept that they don't have any control over national policy and don't spend a lot of time whining about it (nor are there any prominently displayed Nazi flags or other heavy-handed attempts to paint the soldiers as uniformly evil); Kubrick's grunts would certainly appreciate Colonel Matthieu's statement from Battle of Algiers, "We are soldiers! Our duty is to win!" Or, as this film might put it, to survive.
The Vietnam sequences, as seemingly sparse as they are, actually say a lot more about the war and the men who fight in it than the pseudo-profundities of crap like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. The Colonel who lectures Joker on the necessity of the war - "Inside every gook is an American fighting to get out" - could very well be General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, and the banner flying in the Stars and Stripes field tent - "First to go, last to know" - makes this even more obvious. The scenes of the TV news crew interviewing Cowboy's squad are perhaps a bit too obvious and on-the-nose, but do a good job of showing the differing reactions of these individuals to the war: some don't understand why they're fighting or are frustrated, others are happy to be there, and some just don't care ("If I'm going to waste gooks for a word, that word is poontang!"). Kubrick eschews epic, showy battle sequences for a series of confused, bloody skirmishes amidst the rubble of bombed-out cities. harrowing, nightmarish final showdown with a VC sniper can be read as a reduced metaphor for the entire war itself: America is mislead into a bloody fight against a determined foe which their far superior firepower cannot defeat - a conflict which ultimately has no purpose but pride, vegeance and survival.
Needless to say, Kubrick does a brilliant job directing. He handles the film's abrupt shifts in tone perfectly, and does a great job with a seemingly minimalist budget of making the realities of the Marine Corps and the Vietnam War hit home. This is no historical epic, merely a portrait of Marines at war, and as such Kubrick does an excellent job, the intensity of the training scenes, the horror of Pyle and Hartman's confrontation, and the nightmarish combat sequences leaps off the screen with visceral intensity.
While Matthew Modine is a bit stiff and uninteresting as Private Joker, our nominal protagonist, the supporting cast is filled with memorable characters. The two obvious ones are Vincent D'Onofrio and R. Lee Ermey, whose high-intensity conflict in the first half leads to explosive results. Ermey in particular is nothing short of brilliant, giving a ferocious, full-throated, alternately hilarious and frightening performance as Hartman, though it may be a back-handed complement given that Ermey was a real-life DI and may well be playing himself. D'Onofrio does well showing Pyle's slow unravelling, and his performance of his character's seminal scene is absolutely chilling. Adam Baldwin steals all of his scenes as the gung-ho, equally psychotic Animal Mother, and Arliss Howard does fine work as the hapless Sergeant Cowboy.
Full Metal Jacket is among the best war films ever made, and if there's a better Vietnam film out there I've yet to see it (although Platoon places a respectable second, and Randall Wallace's unfairly maligned We Were Soldiers isn't far behind either). With only two Kubricks to go (Fear and Desire and Eyes Wide Shut), I have to say it's the best of his oeuvre as well. As unpopular as that opinion may be, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Rating: 9/10 - Highest Recommendation