Full Metal Jacket (1987) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Matthew Modine, Arliss Howard, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio
By Alan Bacchus
With each successive viewing “Full Metal Jacket” seems to rise the ranks of the Kubrick oeuvre. For me it sits in his top three just below “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001” A Space Odyssey”. Like his other war film “Paths of Glory” Kubrick cuts the film in two distinct halves. Each half is a masterpiece in it’s own right and when put together greater than the sum of its parts.
The opening starts with some popular music – something we aren’t accustomed to in the Kubrick universe – Johnny Wright’s “Hello Vietnam” while our characters’ hair are being buzzed off. Kubrick is stripping his characters down – bare – so they can be shaped into the stone cold Marines they will become. Then we get a loud introduction to Gunnery Sgt Hartman (Lee Ermey) – a drill instructor with the most foul mouth to ever grace the screen. The opening half of the film which takes place entirely within these training barracks is hell on earth for these characters. As the verbal and physical abuse continues the character of Joker (Matthew Modine) emerges as the leader and protagonist. We also meet Leonard “Pvt Pile” (Vincent D’Onofrio) who is eloquently described by Hartman as a ‘digusting fat body’ and a ‘slimy fucking walrus-looking piece of shit’. The abuse doesn’t harden Pile into a Marine though – his mind is carved into a psychotic who will eventually take his anger out in the most violent of ways.
The second half is like an entire different film. Only Pvt. Joker and Pvt. Cowboy continue on in the film. It’s months after basic training. Joker, looking more relaxed and comfortable with his position in the army, is a war correspondent who writes articles for “Stars and Stripes” magazine. Joker is assigned to cover a platoon on reconnaissance after the famous Tet offensive. Like the first half Joker’s tour becomes a journey into hell. When the platoon gets lost they encounter a lone sniper that will test their physical and moral strength.
The Kubrick style is in our faces loud and clear. He elegantly glides his camera easily across the pristine floor of the training bunks. The rows and rows of beds allows for some immaculately composed shots – mostly symmetrical compositions of course. In the second half, Kubrick spares no expense in the production design – creating Vietnam out of the English countryside. Kubrick’s frame is composed just as carefully, specifically the use of the omnipresent background smoke. I can’t even fathom the logistical nightmare of coordinating the billows of smoke miles in the background. But it’s these details that make the film a visual delight.
The final sequence which follows the platoon into the abandoned town to confront the sniper is the highlight. Watch the amazing long tracking shot from behind the soldiers as they crouch and run into their positions (notice the similarities in these shots to “Saving Private Ryan”). Watch the subtle lighting changes throughout the scene as the sun goes down. The scene moves from standard daylight to magic hour light to complete darkness. Again watch the fire and smoke which seems to breathe a life of its own. And that’s only the background!
The confrontation with a lone sniper presents the soldiers with a moral conundrum. After all the immoral death Kubrick makes us sympathize with his exposed and defenseless victim. This final scene is important not just in conveying the theme of the film – the duality of war – but also the themes of Kubrick's career.
Like most of his films “Full Metal Jacket” is largely inhumane, showing us an emotionally unencumbered world of violence. But after almost 2 hours of dehumanization Kubrick slaps us with a moment of humanity. And the denouement which takes the soldiers back to childhood reinforces his theme of innocence regained. Enjoy.