Looking Back Friday – Full Metal Jacket (1987)
For this weeks looking back article, Sam is here to talk about the Stanley Kubrick Vietnam classic, Full Metal Jacket
The Vietnam War has been the subject of many films. Whether it’s Francis Ford Coppola’s acclaimed Apocalypse Now (1979) or Oliver Stone’s brutally honest Platoon (1986), it’s a topic of conversation that has been thoroughly explored. That didn’t stop reclusive director Stanley Kubrick from making Full Metal Jacket (1987), his first film in seven years after The Shining (1980).
Told in two parts, Kubrick’s film opens with young men getting their hair cut. It’s a requirement to join the U.S. Marines. They’re headed to Parris Island or as any mentally functioning person would call it, Hell. This “island” is a training ground ran by Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) – an equally vile and humorous officer who busts the balls of every maggot who wants to themselves Marines.
The opening is pure genius: Perplexing, saddening, and sporadically hilarious, Kubrick’s depiction of wartime preparation – filled with angst and uncertainty – is captured with fierce intensity. This is especially true in the character of Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) – an initially good-natured individual who is driven insane by bootcamp. The result is catastrophic. Neither the maker, nor player survives.
And as quickly as a philosophical element concludes, a new story begins. The film jumps ahead in time when Private “Joker” Davis (A character introduced at Parris Island played by Matthew Modine) is a journalist in the midst of war. At this point., the American public is feeling restless and frustrated over Vietnam. No one wants to fight in a useless war. Worse, no soldier wants to engage in warfare not worth losing life over.
Still, Joker is caught in the middle of it all. His job as a journalist for the Marines is to qualify, embellish, and spin wartime stories. This type of narrative structure – cutting the film into two distinct acts – is awfully similar to the techniques employed by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo. Both pictures contain a certain spirit: cold and distant, relentless and enigmatic.
While the master of suspense concocts a more elaborate film, Full Metal Jacket is an achievement in its own right. That feat is Kubrick’s ability to spin a rundown subject matter and create a fresh tale. By 1987, audiences had fallen head over heels for Apocalypse Now and Platoon, and then Full Metal Jacket is released. And once again, the style of Kubrick was reborn.
On a personal level, narratives detailing war often rings false and overbearing to me. This could be because of my complete and total disdain for bloodshed. However, my dislike for the conceit of battle is not the issue with Kubrick’s 12thfilm.
The preceding act is superior to the latter. Blending typical combatant training sequences, dark comedy, and philosophy, Full Metal Jacket could’ve adequately concluded after the first hour. It’s unfortunate that the subsequent act follows down the path of nearly every conventional war movie. Except for, of course, an inane use of a Mickey Mouse song.
Full Metal Jacket leaves me conflicted. Like the war itself, Kubrick’s 1987 feature is grim and inhuman, questioning the very reason why one partakes in the murdering of others.