The first act of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket is such a masterpiece, a fusion of the highest caliber of direction, acting, production design and camerawork, that it could very well have stood alone, as a gripping 48-minute story on film. It has rightly been called the finest fictional portrayal of basic training in the movies. It's the tale of Private Gomer Pyle and his struggle against tyrannical (but professional and just) drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman as well as the story of Private Joker (Matthew Modine), who befriends Pyle even as he watches him crumble. This segment is among Kubrick's best work as a director; it has the overwhelming force of emotion to match his precision and perfectionist style. In other words, he's a master filmmaker who's truly in his element.
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Following the brutal, bloody conclusion of that segment, Full Metal Jacket blacks out and fast-forwards several years to catch up to Sergeant Joker, a Stars & Stripes reporter in Da Nang with a shaggy mop and a Sailor's cynicism about all things Vietnam. This segment follows Joker around before and after the Tet offensive, as he, representing the common man in a big old war, traces around the countryside, fighting and experiencing Kubrick's vision of hell on Earth. Joker is no dummy, as we saw in the Parris Island chapter of the film, and some of his observations are rather insightful. His smiling cynic also begins to gnaw on you after a while, and he doesn't have enough presence to lead us on any kind of emotional journey -- in the end, when he is forced to kill a VC sniper that had been cutting down his buddies, it's anticlimactic, almost bathos. Modine is good as Joker, sometimes very good, but his somewhat shallow character can't carry this character-driven drama where it needs to go. It also doesn't help that Modine only comes alive when he's contributing to an ensemble: Short Cuts, Memphis Belle, Married to the Mob. After the Hartman and Pyle characters are dead, all the vitality goes out of the narrative, and Modine's Joker can't do anything to save it.
Kubrick's take on Vietnam is another problem, as well, because it's so obviously "Kubrick's Take On Vietnam," and anything he has to say has been said five times before, and better. "You know what really pisses me off about these people? We're supposed to be helping them and they s*** on us every chance they get," observes Joker's friend Rafterman about the South Vietnamese. Well, duh: anyone who's seen the two dozen Vietnam movies prior to 1987 knows this already. There's a theory that says you can make a successful film with familiar, well-worn characters, so long as you don't waste time with exposition that tells the audience what they already know. In Kubrick's best films he wastes no time with redundant explanations.
As I mentioned before, Kubrick is in his element in the Parris Island scenes, but loses his footing in Vietnam. Part of that has to do with the essential nature of Gustav Hasford's story: the structured, disciplined, perfected lives of Marines spinning out of control as they are pulled into the machine of war. That's fine, but Kubrick is a perfectionist trying to do chaos, and he just can't pull it off (it's his weakness). Chaos is in the eyes of the amazing Vincent D'Onofrio as Pyle, as the stress of rejection and constant harassment slowly drives him insane. It isn't in the eyes of Modine, who we believe has been driven slowly from sarcastic revulsion to clear-eyed revulsion.
Full Metal Jacket is, aside from that, a somewhat convincing reenactment of the deterioration of America's confidence in Vietnam following the Tet offensive. The staging of Vietnam in England is a very admirable feat. We don't get the rice paddies and the beautiful, carved brown rivers of Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter, but a slightly different angle: a clear look at the utilitarian, prefabricated architecture of the U.S. military's base at Da Nang, the greasy, muddy countryside and war-torn provincial areas, and most eerily of all, the bombed-out shell of a city used at the film's climax.
It's a movie made of two short stories: one an effective portrait of a recruit driven to insanity, the other an ineffective portrait of a soldier driven to insanity, coupled with a clear-eyed look at a war that's had one movie too many made about it.