Pros: some performances, artful tracking shots, apt music
Cons: English Vietnam, conventional, somewhat defanging source
I think that Stanley Kubrick's last move, "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999) , is hideously bad and that he is very overrated as a "genius" film director. I admire the movies he directed during the late-1950s and early-to-mid 1960s: "Paths of Glory," some of "Spartacus," "Lolita," and "Dr. Strangelove." Those movies (and "A Clockwork Orange" and "The Shining") were among other merits, very well-cast.
Kubrick's other post-"Strangelove" movies have some very dubious casting. I don't accept Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as intimates in "Eyes Wide Shut" (yes, I am aware they were married). Ryan O'Neal is all wrong in the title role of "Barry Lyndon." Keir Dullea has very little presence in "2001" (easily outacted by the computer HAL and dwarfed by special effects).
In Kubrick's penultimate movie, "Full-Metal Jacket" (1987) there is some very good casting--the real-life Marine drill-master R. Lee Ermey (Se7en) as the sadistic martinet licensed to humiliate, Vincent D'Onofrio as his victim (whom Gunnery Sgt. Hartman dubs "Gomer Pyle"), Adam Baldwin as "Animal," and in a part with very little screen time, Dorian Harewood as "8-Ball." Matthew Modine (who had already had experience of preparing to go to Vietnam in Robert Altman's film of David Hare's harrowing play "Streamers") is fine as "Joker." The movie is told from his perspective, including some voice-over lines from Gustav Hasford's book The Short-Timers.
Joker is more observer than player in the dramas (though a player in the comedic aspects). His attempts to mentor "Private Pyle" seem plausible (Sgt. Hartman ordered him to undertake them). A weakness either in casting or in the script with Kubrick and Michael Herr (Dispatches, Apocalypse Now) fashioned from Hasford's book is the character of Cowboy (played by Arliss Howard). He barely registers on-screen and his friendship with Joker is stated but not shown.
When I saw "Full-Metal Jacket" upon its initial release, I thought that the first part (nearly half) set in the Parris Island, SC Marine training facility was powerful. I hoped that the viciousness was exaggerated. The second, Vietnam, seemed to me inferior. The set, in particular (what is supposed to be the heavily shelled Citadel of Hue, built by the French) seemed phony to me. Animal was still plenty scary (animalistic). The movie's Joker is more conventional hero (like the John Wayne who is a special object of scorn for the Joker of the book, as my review of it detailed). Authoritative reviews, like that of ex-Marine Metalluk, express frustration that Modine's Joker doesn't have more "presence," but in Hasford's conception (and, I believe, Kubrick's), Joker is not a hero. He is the one who survives to tell the tale (like Conrad's recurrent narrator, Marlowe)--and to provide gallows humor along the way. (And I think that he has more "presence" than Keir Dullea in "2001" or Tom Cruise in "Eyes Wide-Shut," though definitely not trying to be a hero or even the shaper of his own life, as Alec McDowell does as Alex de Large in "A Clockwork Orange.")
And the assault on Hue, including the obstacle of sniper of deadly accuracy, is a pretty conventional military saga that could as easily have been lifted from a World War II film. What Hasford and other writers who fought in Vietnam evoke is the continuous menace of guerrilla war, where danger was everywhere. This is central to the last part of the book, which is set entirely on a jungle patrol (out from the embattled Khe Sanh). "Platoon" shows this, but I think it is safe to say that Stanley Kubrick "didn't do" jungles.
He and Herr took some elements from the last part and mixed them into the Hue part. I don't think that it worked, and that the mostly conventional confrontation with a skilled sniper (there are some twists that I certainly will not reveal!) deprives the movie of the atmosphere of jungle menace that is essential to Vietnam movies. Moreover, taking out a sniper is a clear and obviously necessary mission--in contrast to many of the military actions (most notably the defense of Khe Sanh, which seems to have been a decoy Gen. Giap was confident that Gen. Westmoreland would fixate on, as he did). The "what are we doing in this hellhole?" sense that is brilliantly captured in "Go Tell the Spartans" and "Platoon" and the Vietnam part of "Who'll Stop the Rain?" is missing in from "Full-Metal Jacket."
Having read the book before rewatching the movie, I can go beyond the usual "The book was better" verdict and see that what was added (prostitute caricatures) was distraction, that the loss of the jungle patrol and lifting elements form it to mix with the retaking of Hue hurt the power and sense of Hasford's book. The feel of the jungle war against guerrillas (difficult to distinguish from civilians) is hard to capture in England, where Kubrick shot all the Vietnam part of the movie and most of the boot camp part.
Bottom line: The Part-Timers directly challenges movie-studio "reality. "Full-Metal Jacket" provided a new sample of it.
(The video could be--SHOULD be--better on the DVD, which is notable for lack of bonus features.)
© 2007, Stephen O. Murray
I wrote more about Hasford's book (including much more plot detail) and contrasts between the book and the movie in my review of The Short-Timers. For more on the surreal Tet Offensive battles of Hue and Khe Sanh, see the "tourist account" of journalist Michael Herr, Dispatches. As noted, Herr shared credit with Kubrich and Hasford (Hasford had to fight for his) for the screenplay that was Oscar-nominated (best adaptation--though its failures in adaptation are many...).
My review of the book also contains links to other memoirs and novels of Vietnam that I have been reading through the lens of another incoherent mission set by a Texan US president.