Stanley Kubrick, “Full Metal Jacket” (1987)
According to Wikipedia, a full metal jacket refers to a bullet consisting of a soft core (usually made of lead) surrounded by a harder metal shell casing. This is the clue to a major theme of this anti-war film by Stanley Kubrick: the dehumanization of men by war, in particular by the culture and organisation of war to achieve ends other than what the men themselves have been told about what they are fighting for. The movie is well made, with skilful deployment of the Steadicam camera that follows the actors quite closely so that the viewer is brought right into the action of war and is able to feel something of the sweat, exhaustion, uncertainty and sheer hard grind (physical and psychological) of being on the front-line. The cinematography is magnificent in its portrayal of the claustrophobic environment and the scale of destruction in Vietnam wrought by the Vietnam War.
The film divides into two halves: viewers will be hard pressed to figure out which half features more brutality and violence. In the first half, a platoon of US marine recruits is put through its boot camp paces by the sadistic and implacable Sergeant Hartman (R Lee Ermey, who drew on his experiences as a drill sergeant in the US Army and saw action in Vietnam in the 1960s). Almost straight away Hartman finds fault with one recruit Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), whom he dubs Gomer Pyle after a TV sitcom character because of his bumbling ways. Pyle finds keeping up with the recruits during the hard physical training very heavy going and continually attracts the ire and insults of Hartman. Hartman pairs him with another recruit “Joker” (Matthew Modine) who tries to help Pyle. Pyle makes considerable progress until he is humiliated by Hartman who then starts punishing the entire platoon every time Pyle makes a mistake. The platoon then hazes Pyle. From this moment on, Pyle suffers a slow mental breakdown, disguised as his reinvention as a model soldier, to the horror of Joker who observes his deterioration. This gradual collapse comes to a horrifying and incredibly tragic climax.
The second half of the film sees Joker, now a sergeant and war correspondent for a military newspaper, covering events as they unfold during the Vietnam War. Accompanied by photographer Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), Joker is sent to Phu Bai where they follow a squad of soldiers, one of whom is Cowboy (Arliss Howard), Joker’s friend from boot camp. The men are involved in a number of actions that culminate in their entrapment in an unfamiliar part of an unnamed bombed-out city by a sniper who picks them off one by one. The men lead an attack on the sniper and Joker discovers the sniper’s identity. A shoot-out follows and Joker is left with a dreadful choice to make.
As the moral pivot around which FMJ revolves, the mostly passive character of Joker is important: he represents the ordinary person thrust into extreme situations where he is forced to make unenviable choices, and each and every one of these choices has the potential to cut him down as a moral being. At the end of the film, Joker is glad to be physically alive but whether he is morally and spiritually alive is another question. The men around him represent particular aspects of the human character under duress and some of them, like Pyle, become psychotic to a degree. Because Joker is essentially an acquiescent character who basically does as he is told despite a minor shallow rebelliousness, the film may seem less stronger to many viewers than it might have done had he been more assertive.
Some viewers may gripe about the film’s structure but the two halves complement each other well: the first half is ordered with a definite narrative. Hartman carries out a brutal regime of degradation in a more or less restrained and controlled environment. In the film’s second half, chaos and disorder reign. The psychological degradation is more gradual. The film’s conclusion appears banal but it is a logical summation of the brutality and violence that the US troops have brought to Vietnam. The film is actually very tight in its overall structure. Just as Joker claims to a disbelieving senior officer that he wears a helmet baptised “Born to Kill” and a peace symbol at the same time to represent the Jungian dualities that exist in his nature, so the film conveys a similar duality in its halves that reflect and comment on one another. Should we be surprised that both halves resolve in similar climaxes that test the moral strength of Joker and the audience who witness with him?
Details within the film, especially in a scene in which the soldiers are interviewed by news reporters, delineate the extent to which the soldiers are becoming paranoid and hateful towards the Vietnamese: they believe the Vietnamese are ungrateful at the Americans’ presence and what they believe is a noble fight against Communism. The extent to which the Americans and Vietnamese exist in parallel but are actually worlds apart thanks in part to the Americans having been brainwashed by their own government and media propaganda can be faintly discerned. The Vietcong enemy initially appears mysterious, sinister, larger than large, ominous and multi-tentacled yet when it is revealed at close quarters, the soldiers are devastated to discover they have been picked off by a teenage girl.
A major theme of Kubrick’s films is the cultural construction of masculinity in Western, principally American, society and how manhood can be distorted and undercut by prevailing cultural delusions about war and how it is best prosecuted. The film’s two climaxes demonstrate how fragile this masculinity is and how culture can destroy humans in just as devastating ways as war does.
On the whole, this is a very good film though it lacks the power of Francis Ford Coppola’s excellent “Apocalypse Now” with which it is often compared.