Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Art isn't just about the message. It's also about the medium, the specific portal through which that message is conveyed. Some media are better at expressing action, or color, or thought. Some media are more portable, while others are more visceral. Some are great because they're live, or tactile, or three-dimensional. Others are great because they're cheap or easily accessed or simply more permanent.
I speak of this because it's important to know your medium, particularly what it's good at, and what it can or cannot do with ease. As media go, film is a redheaded stepchild whose original medium is still up for grabs. Some see its development as an extension of the theater. Others draw comparisons with radio and TV. Still others go back to the novel, the novella or even the campfire story. How you fill in that blank matters, because it says something about what you think film should be.
For Stanley Kubrick, "motion pictures" were an extension of still photography. Kubrick, who never went to film school, who never wrote (except for film) and who never had dreams of being an actor, a stand-up comedian or a producer - shot his films as if he were shooting stills in motion. His movies are visually rich. The composition and mise en scene are breathtaking. Kubrick's pacing requires a bit of patience, and his choice of subjects wasn't always commercial gold, but he had an eye that looked for the edge between art and commerce, and which constantly sought to blow the audience away.
Full Metal Jacket is a great example of that.
Released in 1987, this was Kubrick's second-to-last film. It came out seven years after The Shining, and 12 years before Kubrick's final venture, Eyes Wide Shut, which premiered months after Kubrick had died. During his 48-year career as a film director, Kubrick only shot 16 films, but Full Metal Jacket is easily one of his best, and best known. The radio ads for it proclaimed it "the finest war movie ever made." That may be stretching it a bit - in part because there have been some awesome war flicks, and in part because half of the movie is about basic training, not life in the war zone. But it's still an amazing film, filled from beginning to end with performances, dialogue, shots and scenes that are absolutely classic.
In the spectrum of war films, Kubrick has placed himself somewhere between Frank Capra and Oliver Stone. Capra glorified war, or at least the American side of it, and ended up producing official propaganda (like 1942's Why We Fight). Stone railed against it, particularly Vietnam, making that war a major part of most of his films, including Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon. Stone's films are just as propagandistic as Capra's, but to see that you have to pay attention to the way Stone stacks the deck, with one horror story after another. By these standards, Full Metal Jacket is surprisingly apolitical. Its point is an observation on the dehumanization that occurs during war. It cares less about politics than about the relationship between ordinary men and the emotional sausage grinder in which they find themselves.
In presenting this, Kubrick wastes no time. A lesser film would begin in voice-over narration, introducing us to our hero and the backstory. Kubrick, instead, doesn't even let us digest the opening credits before he makes his first point. Against the twang of country-and-western music, the kind you might hear in a barber shop, he shows a series of fresh recruits getting "buzzed." With a few deft passes of an electric razor, whole personalities are stripped away. They're reduced to an egg-like "jarhead." If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all. And while this is happening, the sheep being sheared just sit there, blank-faced or giggling.
By this point, in Oliver Stone's Platoon, Charlie Sheen would have told us half his life story. Kubrick, instead, just drops us into a series of scenes, forcing us to grope. We meet Private Joker (Matthew Modine), a reasonably educated recruit, drafted into service during the Vietnam War. He's not gung ho - and he certainly isn't a rebel. He's simply a bespectacled private with a look of intelligence, a kid with enough poise to reflect self-confidence, and whose eyes are constantly scanning the terrain for clues.
If Private Joker is the story's center, that center is surrounded by a well-orchestrated array of related characters. There's Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), Eightball (Dorian Harewood), Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), and Private Cowboy (Arliss Howard), each of whose names speak for themselves. In another film, this would be the story of how a disparate group pulled together, one of those rah-rah performances that salutes the army's version of "e pluribus unum." But this is Kubrick. We're not here to salute the flag - or burn it. We're here to learn something about the human condition.
The two characters who immediately stand out are Leonard (Vincent D'Onofrio), a bumbling, possibly mildly-retarded marine who immediately gets under the skin of sadistic Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). If your only introduction to Ermey is the History Channel's "Mail Call," you are in for a treat. As Sgt. Hartman, Ermey is absolutely iconic, taking "tough bastard" into directions and dimensions that turn the cliche on its head.
Hartman, who adopts an immediate hatred for Leonard, refers to him as "Private Pyle," then uses him as a continuing object lesson. There's something comi-tragic about Pyle's transgressions and Hartman's increasingly volatile responses, but this is not a comedy, like Stripes, or an expose, like A Few Good Men, or even a mind-bender, like Basic. This is hardcore drama, and the question is not, "Will Private Pyle make it?" If it were, we'd be watching "An Officer and a Gentleman." Instead, this is Joker's film. It's his arc we are following. Hartman and Pyle are harbingers of the constant struggle to find identity in a world that punishes defiance - but no less so than conformity itself.
Something weird happens about halfway through. The tone changes, or at least seems to, before dumping Private Joker, now a war correspondent, into the madness of war. This is another place where Kubrick distinguishes himself from directors like Oliver Stone, Robert Altman and Mike Nichols, whose antiwar statements are as hard to miss as a billboard. There are moments in this second half that play out with the absurdity of Catch-22 or MASH. There are others that are comical, if not completely skeptical about the moral superiority of Americans in combat. Then there are moments that spin it all around, when to not pull for "our guys" is to have a heart too small to pump blood through a teardrop.
Based on Gustav Hosford's autobiographical novel (The Short Timers), Full Metal Jacket is a collection of exchanges, observations, one-liners and plot twists that have less to do with any concrete objective (winning the war, winning this battle or that) and everything to do with the battle for the soul of Private Joker, who is not so much a victim as a survivor. For that reason, the first half of the film is clearly the more popular half. In some ways, the two halves of this film are more like two separate films. The effect is so disjointed that it's easy to get worked up by the first half and then feel disappointed in the second - mainly because the second doesn't have the same tone.
For that reason, it pays to go into this film with the idea that its structure is less classical and more experimental. If he had wanted to, Kubrick could have made it easier to see his point, and the progression he's taking as he lays it out, but he doesn't do that. Whether that's a bit of negligence on his part, or careful design, is anyone's guess. I suspect, however, that Kubrick would have found a clearer, more didactic approach, boring. This isn't a film like Apocalypse Now, where the players are progressively descending into madness. It's more like A Clockwork Orange, in the sense that Kubrick, who goes to great pains to control so many of the film's every detail, steps back to show the human dilemma. Far too often, whether we're looking at it from the left or the right, filmmakers - and their audience - use film to simplify complex problems, and to do so simplistically.
Another, perhaps less charitable, way to look at it is to suggest that, in this case, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. This is clearly a film that raises more questions than it answers. It's also a film whose scenes, taken by themselves, are far more memorable than any sweeping conclusions it might draw. For that reason, if you are expecting closure, this may not be the film for you. It's a sometimes eerie, provocative, experience - but it's not a very tidy one, particularly after the second half. What begins, in a very tightly knit, well-focused beginning, ends up a bit more meandering and open-ended in the second half. Again, whether that's a failing, on Kubrick's part, or there by design, is anybody's guess.
It's a big enough drop that I normally take off at least a star, if not two or three. But here, to give Full Metal Jacket anything less than five stars is to under-report its position in the constellation of films. I'm not sure it's "the finest war film ever made," but I'm not sure I've seen a better one, either. Then again, that's the kind of ambivalence you're left with at the end of Full Metal Jacket. If you have a tolerance for this, you should definitely make sure you've seen this classic. If that sort of thing bothers you, you may want to pick up Tears of the Sun or Saving Private Ryan.
I wouldn't want to, but you just might.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age