Directed Viewing: Balancing the Unbalanced: “Full Metal Jacket”

This is Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I look at the filmography of a given director in chronological order and write about them! Not only is this a great learning exercise for me, but it’s also great at filling in cinematic gaps and keeping the ol’ Netflix queue moving at a decent pace. Sure, it’s rife with assumptions about auteur theory, but that’s half the fun.

We’re in the twilight of this Stanley Kubrick project, which admittedly sounds a little weird since today’s movie is almost as old as I am, and yet considered ‘late Kubrick.’ That there was such a gulf of time between his last two movies doesn’t help, but this is also the first movie project I’ve done for a dead director, and I have to admit I approach these last films with a sort of melancholy. This is it, the entirety of Kubrick’s work. I come to these hesitantly, frustrated that there isn’t more to look at, feeling like there are still plenty of missing pieces in trying to figure out Kubrick and his films. But then, he’s flummoxed much smarter, more professional minds than mine, so I’m happy to sit at the feet of the greats and ponder freely.

Today’s movie is one that I revisit with such a big gulf of time I feel like I’m approaching it new. For whatever reason, while I’d seen the movie a few years before, almost all of it had slipped from my mind, leaving little more than the impression of having been seen. And now, having revisited it, I wonder how it could have ever faded. A question to answer in talking about the movie, perhaps.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

There are very few things that I think are Perfect Cinema: moments that are so blindingly brilliant that I stand in utter awe of the accomplishment, swept up in whatever story is being told. But the first twenty minutes of Full Metal Jacket is perhaps the longest stretch of perfect cinema I have ever seen. From the opening credits of a whole generation of young men having their identity erased to Johnnie Wright singing “Hello Vietnam” through to the point where Joker (Matthew Modine) becomes leader of the group of marine recruits, I find that whole stretch of film one of the best singular, genius statements of cinema. It’s absolutely perfect.

It’s also the most talked about, and most widely remembered, part of Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam classic, so I don’t really feel the need to be exhaustive in describing it. What is amazing, however, is how every piece creates this world that puts us both in the shoes of these marine recruits and allows us to objectively observe them at the same time. From the original assault of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R Lee Ermey, in an instantly iconic role) that makes us hate him, through to the constant pounding of his voice and the training, Kubrick brings us slowly into this world. Much of what marine training is about is to create rigid automatic structures for soldiers to fall back on in the field, to make being a soldier more second nature than being a person, and that transformation happens on screen and in a small way inside each of us. By the end of it, we are as comforted by the brutal but understandable structure of Marine life as the recruits, at home with the long stretches of silence punctuated only by “Sir yes sir!” and the in-step march of a troop turned into one well-oiled machine.

Most of the memorable lines from this movie occur immediately. Did everyone only watch the first reel?

But that’s not all of what Full Metal Jacket is; if it was only a look into that evolution (brainwashing, if you want) from people to soldiers, I think it would be a well thought of curiosity. Instead, it is only the first half of Kubrick’s deeply conflicted look at Vietnam. And even as the training winds down, the encroaching madness of Private “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio, who really does steal the entire movie) begins to swell up and threaten every regimented structure we’ve come to rely upon in this film. It’s not only a foreshadowing of what will happen in the second half, but it’s its own watershed moment: Lawrence was initially the most sympathetic of the recruits, a kid who just wasn’t cut out to be a soldier.

But at some point in the training, we become so pulled into that world that his bumbling incompetence makes the audience turn on him as much as the characters do, and when he finally snaps he goes far beyond where we can comfortably follow. He is in a place of complete madness, up there with the worst most vicious monsters of Kubrick’s filmography, and we’ve been so lulled by the regulations of this military womb that the horror of his incomprehensible state is all the greater. He’s not just pitiable or scary, but antithetical to the world view we’ve had massaged into us for the past 40 minutes. Yet what he represents, this inability to cope with the horrors being asked of each of these kids, represents what all of them are going to experience the moment they’re shipped out to go fight and die halfway across the world. In some ways, Lawrence has the best fate of all his fellow recruits.

Privates Pyle and Joker. Joker seems to be the only one worried about Lawrence’s deteriorating mental state.

It’s really easy to dismiss the second half of Full Metal Jacket, because it isn’t as masterfully brilliant as the first half, but I think that’s doing the movie and Kubrick’s themes a disservice. Is it the lesser part of a clearly bifurcated film? Absolutely. But I think it requires all the more scrutiny because of its flaws, and because of how easily it gets lost in most of the broader discussions of the film. Taking place a year after training, we pick back up with Joker in Vietnam. He’s become a war correspondent for Stars and Stripes, which mostly requires him to sit around and enjoy living the high life of an occupying (liberating, if you want) force in the safety of the city while he interviews real war heroes and visiting top brass.

The Vietnam sequence is shapeless, but that is by design. Joker and his friends spend most of their time sitting around bullshitting each other, casually haggling prices with Vietnamese prostitutes like they don’t have a care in the world. Joker’s compatriots make fun of him for having not seen any real action, and Joker has the antsy quality of a man tired of peace that only the people who haven’t seen any sort of real combat seem to have. But that dichotomy is in keeping with Joker, who was always the smartest of his recruits, a soldier who wears a peace symbol on his flak jacket to, as he claims, “represent the duality of man.” He gets his chance, then, when the Tet offensive drives him and his crew out of the lap of luxury and out into the field.

Compared to the austerity of training, Vietnam seems like a rundown tropical resort, especially away from the fighting.

Finding himself attached to a squad that contains one of his fellow recruits, Joker witnesses the slow dissolution of the squad as they encounter the enemy again and again and their numbers are whittled down. By the end, there’s only a few left, including Joker and the aggressive Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin, playing the role he’d go on to rehash over and over again forever), who encounter a lone sniper that kills most of the increasingly frantic squad until they finally pin her down. It falls on Joker, then, to do the humane thing and shoot the wounded sniper, something he does only after much taunting and screwing up his courage. He emerges from the fight with the thousand yard stare the other soldiers had teased him for not having, and the soldiers happily march out of the movie and into the war singing the “Mickey Mouse March.”

The problems with this half of the film are obvious: there’s a lot of noise and chaos, but the action is fairly inconsequential. Saving Private Ryan this is not, and it doesn’t even have any of the obvious psychological weight that Apocalypse Now used to great effect. But I feel like Full Metal Jacket tackles the same themes as the latter film in its own, much more modern way. What the action in Full Metal Jacket represents is a threat to human morality, the danger of losing life and what that does to a person’s priorities. Many of the soldiers seem blazé about the threat they face, but in watching Joker become another in the line of soldiers who all share a similar experience, Full Metal Jacketshows us that it’s not a flaw of character but the only sane response a human can have to inhuman horrors.

When Joker finally gets to the front, he finds a gulf between him and the ‘real’ soldiers such as Animal Mother.

What I find most interesting in this revisit of the movie is how, then, the second half relies upon the first. I think that without the rigid structure of the training to build upon, what we’d see in the second half would be too ambiguous and nebulous to grab a hold of. It’s that institutionalized training that Joker and the other marines fall back upon to try to make sense of an insane situation, and it’s those memories that we as viewers need to fall back upon in order to keep any sense of perspective. The alternative is to have no handhold, and slip completely into the darkness, just like Lawrence did to catastrophic results. Maybe the soldiers have been dehumanized and dehumanize others, but what other result could you expect? They’re trained to fight and kill and survive, and there are prices paid for that, and even someone as peace-loving as Joker eventually has to sacrifice his innocence to hold onto his humanity.

About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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