FULL METAL JACKET
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford
With Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Ermey, and Arliss Howard.
Stanley Kubrick would be American cinema’s premier misanthrope even if he weren’t the only one. This is a filmmaker, after all, whose vision of a blissful future includes man being jettisoned into space so that civilization might dance through the stars with the higher logic of machinery. And one who presented such a governmental rogues’ gallery of predators, incompetents, and psychos that nuclear destruction seemed like an amusingly apt solution to the world’s problems. We’re not talking bleeding heart here. Kubrick’s films almost always end up with the much-deserved destruction of the central character (“protagonist” seems too benign a word, never mind “hero”) and most of the people in his wake.
So when Kubrick got around to filming his version of the Vietnam war, well, it was a pretty sure thing that there wouldn’t be much sympathy or understanding to pass around. And there isn’t, not by a long, long shot. Full Metal Jacket flies in the face of every revisionist effort to explain away Vietnam as either a mistake or a well-meaning venture undercut by lack of support. Kubrick doesn’t fall back on political analysis, either of the left or the right. Nor does he appeal to misguided ideas of duty. And he doesn’t make a study of men destroyed by the stress of war. In what is surely the most controversial stance taken by an American film in at least a decade, Kubrick lays the blame for the bloody tragedy of Vietnam right at the feet of the people who fought there. With the fire-and-brimstone fury of a Puritan preacher, Kubrick labels young American servicemen irredeemable monsters and suggests that the carnage of southeast Asia was the inevitable outgrowth of American culture, the consequence of the innate human destructiveness that is glorified and refined by the U.S. military.
Full Metal Jacket (the title refers to the heaviest sheathing a bullet can have) contains few of the obvious stylistic flourishes common to Kubrick films. Aside from a handful of ominous minicam tracking shots, Kubrick keeps his camera still and his editing almost conventional. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, since Kubrick at his most bravura is almost inevitably Kubrick at his most meaningless. The most notorious example is the scene in Paths of Glory (1957) in which two generals pace a room in hushed conspiracy. Kubrick filmed their conversation in an unbroken tracking shot, the movement of which was dictated by the design of the room’s floor tiles. The characters’ movements, in turn, were dictated by the movement of the camera, so all Kubrick ended up with was a completely artificial and arbitrarily directed scene. It may seem technically accomplished, but it is the abandonment of authorial voice to accidental design. Likewise, in Barry Lyndon, Kubrick imposed a series of compositions borrowed from 18th-century landscape painting and portraiture on his tale of venality and woe. While there was some sense to the pairing of the time’s art and its low commerce, Kubrick’s sense of the picturesque overwhelmed his less sure sense of drama, and again his characters ended up like flies in aspic, arresting but unappetizing.
By contrast, however, the first half of Full Metal Jacket seems almost routine both in technique and material. It opens at a Marine basic training camp at the height of the Vietnam war. After a glimpse of a bunch of youths getting military-style haircuts, we move right into their training: early-morning reveille, long marches, drill and rifle instruction. The nascent platoon even has a drill instructor who epitomizes the kind of military hard-ass that’s been so popular in movies lately. Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey) is a ramrod-straight, foulmouthed bastard who pelts his recruits with showers of obscenities as he tries to fill them with basic military skills. He even has a favorite, a private nicknamed (all the soldiers get Marine sobriquets) Joker (Matthew Modine), and a favorite target, an overweight bungler called Private Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio).
However, as the film progresses, things get a little strange. For one thing, Kubrick spends absolutely no time humanizing the character of Sergeant Hartman. Typically, a character like this will get a few intimate moments with one of his charges where he bucks him up, or a scene with an officer where he can defend one of them (you know, “I’d like just one more chance with Kowalski, sir, I’m sure he’s Marine material”). But all we see of Hartman is his abusive public side, the side that directly impacts on the trainees (whom he calls “maggots”). We rarely see the soldiers relax either, though in Kubrick style, our attention is carefully drawn to one relationship.
Because of the courage he shows in talking back to the sergeant, Joker is made platoon leader and given the special responsibility of shaping Pyle up. Joker tries hard to teach Pyle how to shoulder arms and scale obstacles, but to no avail. Pyle just can’t make it, and Hartman has taken to punishing the platoon for Pyle’s lapses. So one night the hapless youth’s peers wrap soap bars in towels and, intending to spur his ambition, rush by Pyle’s bunk, whacking him painfully in the stomach. Joker, who’s gotten close to his charge and doesn’t want to hurt him, stays out of it until finally, after urging from his chum, Cowboy (Arliss Howard), he gives in and pummels Pyle a good half dozen times, much longer than anyone else.
Again, this is the familiar it-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you type of stuff so common to service dramas. But Kubrick films the scene almost clinically, perching the camera. so we can see every soldier winding up and every blow landing painfully on the restrained victim’s stomach. Kubrick takes care to emphasize both the double pain — emotional and physical — of Joker’s blows and Joker’s attempts to repress his guilt as he lies in bed, blocking out the sound of Pyle’s sobs.
Kubrick’s slight intensifying of cliches is effective, but he soon abandons it for his usual overstatement. Pyle undergoes a startling metamorphosis from sad sack to supersoldier, excelling particularly at rifle practice. He also undergoes a Kubrickian physical change, and begins to take on the facial characteristics of some satanic imp. It’s terribly appropriate in light of his ultimate fate, but it also comes from way out in left field and destroys the tone of insidious evil that had begun to permeate the film.
Kubrick halts his crescendo of insanity when he abruptly shifts to Vietnam, where the soldiers have been dispersed into various units. Joker, though he hungers for action, has been assigned as a correspondent for the military publication Stars and Stripes, but eventually finagles his way to the front lines by doing a story on his old friend Cowboy. Along the way, there is plenty of debauchery and violence, from the whores and thieves of Saigon to the treacherous North Vietnamese attack during the 1968 Tet holiday.
Joker ends up in Hue with Cowboy and his unit, and after some introductory scenes of brutality, Kubrick moves into his final scene, his piece de resistance. It starts with matching tracks, as Kubrick moves his camera behind that of a news crew moving down a line of soldiers. Kubrick’s tone is set; his camera, he’s saying, is a reporting device. But what he’s going to show is the moral fact behind the physical facts. And that moral fact emerges during a long firefight, which, despite a languorous rhythm that works against establishing conventional excitement, is one of Kubrick’s most accomplished sequences. As the sun slowly abandons the afternoon sky, Joker and Cowboy’s platoon are pinned down by a lone sniper. It’s an extended fight, with ebbs and flows, and many fatalities to the platoon. There’s much suffering: death is slow. And there’s much confusion: the command is decimated and the correct course of action is unclear. Suffice to say, however, that eventually, the platoon gets its man, or, in this case, woman.
The moral key to the movie–not that Kubrick hasn’t tipped his hand a dozen times by now–is the death of the sniper, which is accomplished in two stages. The first is, again, conventional: it’s kill or be killed. Joker finds himself staring at death when suddenly his friend Rafterman shoots the sniper, wounding her and saving his buddy’s life. Her still being alive, however, is not enough to stop Rafterman from doing a little celebratory dance over her body before the troop’s survivors decide what to do with her.
In a sense, this is a replay of the sequence when Pyle was beaten under the pretense of helping him. Here, it’s Joker who insists that the wounded woman can’t be abandoned in this state. Something has to be done, and quickly. The moral questions of the film–what is the true motivation of soldiers, why do they act the way they do?–come cascading down in these final terrifying. moments. And if the solutions are familiar, Kubrick’s judgments of them are emphatically not. In fact, the movie ends with an image of hellish transformation, in which the clean-cut Americans are made to look like repulsive creatures from hell.
Kubrick’s images throughout the film are full of intimations of eternity and death. His most repeated shots are circular minicam tracks of Sergeant Hartman bellowing out obscene orders in the barracks, circling endlessly in an undying dance. Circular tracking in Kubrick’s films — whether in 2001 or The Shining — usually signifies an eternally repeated action, and Sergeant Hartman clearly comes to represent the undying face of brutality and murder. He glories in degradation and tutors his troops to the point where they make crude sexual remarks about each other’s sisters and mothers, and welcome similar jests as marks of friendship. For his part, Kubrick films these exchanges as anything but jovial. His medium shots are so clinically framed that they pin the characters, as they banter, in a cinematic petri dish. These are butterflies, caught in a transformation back to grubs.
The eager moral decay of the Americans is infectious. The Vietnamese we see are utterly degraded by circumstance. The women are either whores — negotiating for services in the crudest terms — or killers themselves. In either case they are victims, and Kubrick turns one of them, the wounded sniper, into a screaming mask of pain and horror, like something by Edvard Munch.
But the most horrifying moments of Full Metal Jacket are those in which the young Americans gladly assist in their own damnation. Even those who choose to avoid combat, like Joker’s commanding officer at the newspaper, do so only for base reasons, and continue to aid the war effort by preparing a schedule of lies for popular consumption.
It’s an excoriating vision, one that finds no value in the lives of characters. All are monsters, all kill, all destroy — destroy even themselves. Of course, that attitude begs a question that Kubrick has never faced up to. Why create art in a world so beset by sin that only despair is left? Kubrick neatly lets himself off the hook by holding his artistic world at arm’s length. There are almost no point-of-view shots in Full Metal Jacket, and even when Kubrick comes close to one — like when he crosscuts during a conversation — he holds his camera a little back, a little out of identifying range, so that no one ever speaks for the director. The director is not implicated in the sins of the world, he flies above it and wipes his hands clean of it. And forgets that he created it.