Full Metal Jacket Movie Review Essay

Somehow after the decadence of Barry Lyndon and a philosophical look at horror in The Shining, Stanley Kubrick settled into a film of unrestrained vitriol and aggression, and—once again proving his genius as a cinematic storyteller—made it intellectual and appealing. Full Metal Jacket states its primary concern fairly loud: Private Joker (Matthew Modine) is grilled for wearing a peace pin on his combat uniform while having “Born to Kill” scrawled across his helmet. He responds that it is a comment on the duality of man, warring and peaceable—or, in this case, the Marine-brand, courageous, thoughtless, instinctual killer, the human beneath it, and the difficulties if not the futility of one suppressing the other.

The film reflects this two-sided dilemma with a two-part story. Joker’s hellacious Marine Corps training drives his fellow recruit Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) to insanity. In-country, Joker faces the Tet offensive as a military journalist, then brings his photographer, Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), along as he reunites with fellow basic training survivor Cowboy (Arliss Howard), meets the action-movie version of a Vietnam fighter in Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), and gets into the shit. The dialogue in both sections is a constant clash between the inflating, propagandistic, and sickly comic language of professional soldiering (aided by the immensely foul-mouthed drill sergeant Hartman, played by former Marine sergeant R. Lee Ermey) and Joker’s more self-preserving enterprises, first as the tutor of the inept Pyle and then as the journalist reluctantly covering the military perspective of the war and just as reluctant to get into the fighting when it comes; “I’m not ready for this shit,” he says, as the first bombs begin exploding around him during the Tet offensive. Joker himself is a two-part character. He is never truly the vicious fighter the Marines want him to be, but he is every bit as detestable and capable of violence as his more unthinking counterparts. Modine brings an underlying iciness to the engaging Joker that complements the back-and-forth, and while Joker and especially Rafterman are positioned as outsiders once the war begins, it takes a nearly fatal mistake in the film’s final standoff for one to celebrate and the other to appreciate the magnitude of the cruelty in which they have engaged since joining the Marines. Joker ends the film a killer, but the conflict still exists: his kill is as humane as it is vengeful.

Kubrick’s particularly effective stroke was to purposefully ignore the politics of Vietnam and keep both sides of this generalized central conflict right in your face. The photography puts the audience over the shoulders of fighting soldiers, as well as in the immediate line of fire. Characters are constantly speaking into the camera, both within the story—as when Hartman points into the camera and shouts abuse as much to the viewer as to Joker—and with a nod to the filmmaking process that over the years has stamped its imprimatur on the same nationalistic-language-as-training-tool that has Joker laughing and making jokes as he gives a mid-war interview to a camera crew in front of a burned out house. “I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill,” he says, smiling. The explosions in the wartime half of the film are sudden and indirect, from booby traps and sniper fire. In the safety of an American training depot, the personal danger is ever-present and relentless as the recruits are “born again hard.” The two figures in the film who best fit that catchy phrase are, not coincidentally, also the two genuinely insane and deadly characters—and they’re both American: Pyle and the helicopter gunner who fires at any Vietnamese person standing beneath his chopper. Kubrick works expressly on this level of the individual and unspecialized grunt to create a film that is less a defense or criticism of war than a strike at the mythologies of war-making. In its constant and irreversible violence, Full Metal Jacket, one of Kubrick’s grittiest works, is also one of his most resonant.

''Full Metal Jacket'' is closer in spirit to Francis Coppola's ''Apocalypse Now,'' even if it has none of the mystical romanticism of the Coppola film in either its text or physical production. However, lurking just offscreen, there's always the presence of Mr. Kubrick, a benign, ever mysterious Kurtz, who has come to know that the only thing worse than disorder in the universe is not to recognize it - which is, after all, the first step toward understanding and, possibly, accommodation.

Disorder is virtually the order of ''Full Metal Jacket,'' whose pivotal character, Private Joker (Matthew Modine), the narrator of the novel, wears a peace symbol on his battle fatigues and, on his helmet, the slogan ''Born to Kill.'' Disorder is also there in the structure of the film itself.

''Full Metal Jacket'' is divided into two parts, which at first seem so different in tone, look and method that they could have been made by two different directors working with two different cameramen from two different screenplays. Only the actors are the same. Part of the way in which the movie works, and involves the audience, is in its demand that the audience make the sudden leap to the seemingly (but far from) conventional battle scenes in Vietnam, which conclude the film, from its flashily brilliant first half, set in the Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.

Though Mr. Modine's Private Joker, a humanist in the process of being permanently bent by the war, provides the film with its center, the poetically foul-mouthed Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey) is the film's effective heart, giving terrifying life to ''Full Metal Jacket'' long after he has left the scene and the film has moved on to Vietnam.

Sergeant Hartman is a Marine ''lifer,'' a machine whose only purpose is to turn the soft, half-formed young men who arrive at Parris Island into killers without conscience. There's no nonsense that he's doing it for the men's own good. Everything is made subordinate to ''the corps,'' to which end the recruits are humiliated, beaten, exhausted, tricked, lied to, subjected to racial slurs and drilled, constantly drilled, physically and psychologically.

They recite by rote creeds, prayers and obscene couplets intended to detach them from all values from the past. On Christmas they sing ''Happy birthday, dear Jesus,'' and laugh at their own impertinence. They sleep with their rifles, to which they've been ordered to give girls' names. The training is a kind of ecstatic, longed-for washing of brain and body, defined by Mr. Kubrick in a succession of vignettes so vulgar and so outrageous that one watches in hilarity that, boomerang-like, suddenly returns as shock and sorrow.

The effect of this part of the film, photographed and played with an unnatural cleanliness that reflects the nature of the training iself, is so devastating that one tends to resist the abrupt cut to Vietnam, where order is disorder and truth is simply a matter of language. At one point Private Joker, who has become a Marine combat correspondent, respectfully notes that henceforth ''search and destroy'' missions are to be described as ''sweep and clear.'' The landscape is lunar. Even the sky is a different color.

Though the first half seems complete in itself, the point of ''Full Metal Jacket'' is made only through the combat mission that ends the film in the ruins of the city of Hue, which, as seen by Mr. Kubrick, is both a specific place and the seat of judgment for all that's gone before. Sergeant Hartman's ghost looks on.

The performances are splendid. Mr. Modine (''Birdy,'' ''Mrs. Soffel,'' ''Streamers'') must now be one of the best, most adaptable young film actors of his generation. The film's stunning surprise is Mr. Ermey, a leathery, ageless, former Marine sergeant in real life. He's so good - so obsessed - that you might think he wrote his own lines, except that much of his dialogue comes directly from Mr. Hasford's book, adapted by the novelist with Mr. Kubrick and Michael Herr (''Dispatches''). Note with admiration Vincent D'Onofrio, who plays a hopelessly overweight Parris Island recruit who turns himself into Sergeant Hartman's most dedicated student.

''Full Metal Jacket'' is not without its failed inspirations. A series of television ''interviews'' with battle-worn marines suggests a different, simpler, more obvious kind of movie. Some jokes intended to appall are just jokes: ''How do you manage to shoot women and children?'' ''Easy. You don't lead them so far.'' It sounds as if it's been said many times before, but that could also be the point.

Not for Mr. Kubrick is location shooting in the Philippines or Thailand. Since the early 1960's, he has lived and worked in England, where he created his own, very particular Vietnam locations for ''Full Metal Jacket.'' They're otherworldly. They don't match expectations, any more than the narrative does. They are, however, utterly true to a film of immense and very rare imagination. WAR IS HELL FULL METAL JACKET, produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Mr. Kubrick, Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford, based on the novel ''The Short Timers,'' by Mr. Hasford; edited by Martin Hunter; director of photography, Douglas Milsome; music by Abigail Mead; production designer, Anton Furst; released by Warner Bros. At National, Broadway and 44th Street; Manhattan Twin, 59th Street east of Third Avenue; Eighth Street Playhouse, west of Eighth Street; Cinema Studio, Broadway at 66th Street; 86th Street East, between Second and Third Avenues. Running time: 118 minutes. This film is rated R. Private Joker/Matthew Modine Animal Mother/Adam Baldwin Private Pyle/Vincent D'Onofrio Gunnery Sergeant Hartman/Lee Ermey Eightball/Dorian Harewood Cowboy/Arliss Howard Rafterman/Kevyn Major Howard Lieutenant Touchdown/Ed O'Ross

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