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Full Metal Jacket

After spending years attempting, and ultimately deciding against – the making of a Holocaust movie, Kubrick stumbled into another dark corner of human history and found the Vietnam war,  by adapting Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers into a movie. The result – 1987’s Full Metal Jacket – was Kubrick’s penultimate film, and it’s a strange film to watch, purposefully hard to dissect or judge. The movie jumps around in style and tone, is shot with strange directorial flourishes, and often opaque in terms of meaning. Of all of Kubrick’s movies, Full Metal Jacket is perhaps the most critically dividing, which makes it one of the most interesting to discuss; you can make a good case either way that this is either a masterpiece or outright terrible. It does however remain one of the most iconic movies dealing with the Vietnam war, though it can be argued that Full Metal Jacket isn’t really about Vietnam at all.full metal jacketThe story is split into two sections. The first 45 minutes deal with Paris Island Boot Camp, where tough and foul-mouthed drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) barks insults at a group of recently drafted Marines – including our lead, Private Joker (Mathew Modine) and sad-case Private Pyle, (Vincent D’Onofrio) though the latter might not be cut out for the core. The second half of the movie follows Joker in Vietnam as he writes for Stars and Stripes, and ends with Joker shadowing platoon the Lusthog Squad, around Huế during the Tet Offensive.full metal jacketIn terms of structure, Full Metal Jacket is a strange movie, and unusually for Kubrick, fairly inconsistent in tone and style – this is essentially two movies in one, with a distinctive split following the Paris Island scenes, when we fall into occasional war movie, morality tale, or outright comedy. The first 45 minutes are critically considered the stronger half, which makes sense, as there’s a much more consistent tone towards the beginning, and the plot – following Private Pyle’s abuse, growth and breakdown – is much easier to process. It helps that the first 45 minutes contain R. L. Ermey in all his intense, insulting glory – the effect is similar to be being beaten to death by a wall of violent noise, and Ermey’s mainly ad-libbed lines are often shocking, but always humorous in their sheer level of inventiveness and originality. Vincent D’Onofrio gives the best, most Kubrickian (look for the standard face-shot-from-below angle, used before on Alex DeLarge, Dave and Jack Torrance) performance in the movie, moving from annoying, to tragic, to terrifying. His breakdown in the bathroom is rightfully the most iconic scene from the movie, and the one most people remember – it’s a dark, powerful and cold scene, one which makes the audience uneasy. The Paris Island scenes have gone some way to shape public perception of army boot camp and whilst exaggerated, the look into the psychology of the group and the growing tension between Pyle and his fellow cadets makes for compelling, if cruel, viewing. The use of Steadicam in the opening section gives the scenes an eerie and unreal quality, and sparse use of music is striking too.full metal jacketAfter 45 minutes however, Kubrick leaves the Paris Island sections – as well as R. Lee Ermey and Vincent D-Onofrio – behind, and the movie loses its narrative thread. This is extremely jarring, especially on a first viewing, but it’s an intentional move, the effect similar to killing off Janet Leigh in Psycho, in that the audience is left with no narrative to hold onto, which makes Full Metal Jacket purposefully, and fittingly, disorientating as we enter the war scenes. Once we’re in Vietnam, the movie plays out as a series of set-pieces, which vary wildly in tone, from dramatic, to horrific, to comedic, and often scored with contemporary music – individually, these scenes are great – the iconic ‘me love you long time’ hooker scene, scored to a very fitting Nancy Sinatra track is a highlight, as is the very tense sniper climax and interview sequence – but collectively, the result is like watching a series of filmed short stories or mini-movies. Whilst the scenes are easy to judge individually – the morality debate of sniper murder, the Dr Strangelove-esque propaganda parody in the editorial newsroom, the dehumanisation of the Vietnamese during the helicopter flyover – they’re hard to analyse as a whole, and it’s a struggle to see how any of these scenes really relate to one another. It can be argued that the strange mix of scenes creates a purposefully dizzying look into the random strangeness of war, or that the entire movie is meant to be judged as a series of anecdotes, as if a veteran were listing their war highlights. It can also be argued however that Kubrick simply didn’t know what he was saying, and put together an incoherent jumble of narrative dead-ends. This is perhaps why Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick’s most divisive movie, as it’s easy to see both points of view.full1Kubrick’s idea in the movie is to show what these men must go through to lose their humanity – as such, the opening section serves to break the men, whilst the later Vietnam scenes show them dehumanised. We follow Mathew Modine’s Joker who best represents what Kubrick is going for – a comment on the duality of man, especially when faced with war, and the ease, and subsequent greyness, of evil. In an important scene, Joker is mocked for wearing a peace symbol whist having ‘Born to Kill’ written on his helmet, and responds that the contrast was what he was going for. See also the final sequence, in which the soldiers march singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme – a typical Kubrick trope of combining the horrific with the wholesome to highlight absurdity. The movie can be criticised for spelling out its themes like this, but in a movie so difficult to read or process, a moment of thematic clarity is welcome. Joker is at times philosophical and anti-war, yet there are times when he buys into it, admits that he wants to learn to kill. However, thematically, there are issues with the movie and its characters – Modine’s performance is subdued and downplayed which means he becomes a bit forgettable, and Kubrick’s cold and detached style seems at odds with what’s he’s going for; we’re supposed to care for these characters – otherwise what does it mean if they fall? – but we barely know them. This is highlighted at the end, where a soldier finally makes a kill and gloats about it, the idea being that we see how far he’s fallen into non-humanity. But the problem is we don’t care about this character, and so feel nothing. The final morality question, involving the sniper, hinges on a lose/lose choice, rendering the morality play elements pointless – though in all likelihood, this was probably what Kubrick was going for. Though the movie criticises the war, Kubrick seems less interested in Vietnam itself, focusing on Joker and the rest of platoon being turned into tools, the deconstruction of man as a reverse 2001 (Kubrick’s films post 2001 tend to focus on man’s potential for evil) but we don’t know these characters well enough for this to truly work. In contrast, Platoon does a better job with its characters, but falters on a directorial level; thematic faults aside, very few can touch Kubrick in terms of visual and aesthetic skill.full2Perhaps the film’s strangest production choice, and biggest problem, is filming on soundstages and sets in England, as opposed to location shooting. Kubrick was notoriously afraid to fly, and so brought Vietnam home, importing palm trees and building Huế out of disused gasworks. Whilst the sets do look fantastic, they throwback to those old Hollywood WW2 movies and frankly, feel very artificial. In a movie like Eyes Wide Shut, which used a soundstage version of New York, the odd look actually helped with the film’s disconnected and dreamlike tone; here, in a war movie, it hurts the picture, especially when compared to the likes of Apocalypse Now, which though not filmed in Vietnam, was as close as it could get, and felt authentic. The threat of the English countryside appearing in the background means that Kubrick shoots his action very close to the mark, which really limits the scope and only further highlights the artificiality of the film. War movies need to feel real and so need a wider scope. The contrast between this and Apocalypse Now – a better movie, and one Kubrick would have been proud of – is vast.full7As such this is a difficult movie to judge. Full Metal Jacket is at times, a masterpiece, and is throughout its running time, impeccably directed. Thematically, it can be taken several ways, and the movie should be praised for allowing this kind of cinematic debate. The artificial sets don’t help and some will find the switching tone and lack of narrative frustrating. Ultimately, despite its faults, there’s a lot going on here, though this is perhaps the weakest of Kubrick’s mainstream movies. But it’s still Kubrick, and there’s more than enough here to work with. An interesting and dividing movie, one to make up your own mind on, but one which really, leans more on the side of greatness than failure .

4/5

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One thought on “Full Metal Jacket

  1. Pingback: Eyes Wide Shut | Some Films and Stuff

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