Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Film Review: Full Metal Jacket

"Full Metal Jacket"  **** (out of ****)

Stanley Kubrick shows us war is hell in his masterpiece "Full Metal Jacket" (1987).

"Full Metal Jacket" is a war film about ideas. It is not the battle scenes that matter most when watching this picture instead what is most important is the psychological implications war has on the soldier. The film is about the slow destruction of a man's mind. The Marines, in the case of this movie, reduce a man to nothing. They strip him of all emotion. All humanity. They turn innocent men into killing machines. The film is fiercely anti-war and stands as one of the greatest Vietnam anti-war films of all-time in a class with Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979) and Oliver Stone's "Platoon" (1986).

Kubrick divides "Full Metal Jacket" in two halves. The first half of the movie takes place in 1967 at a boot camp where new recruits meet their drill instructor Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) who will prepare them to go to Vietnam. The recruits consist of "Joker" (Matthew Modine), Eightball (Dorian Harewood), Cowboy (Arliss Howard) and Lawrence (Vincent D' Onofrio) who is un-affectionately called "Gomer Pyle" by Sergeant Hartman.

During the training sequences we see how hard Sgt. Hartman pushes the men. He verbally abuses them. He tells them they are worthless. He refers to them as "ladies". But, he assures all of them, he will turn them into "men" and by "men" he means someone able to kill.

We watch these scenes and we think to ourselves, is this what it is like? Is this what it is like to join the Marines? Is this how America treats those who want to serve for their country? We systematically take everything good about people and corrupt them with a desire to kill. It is within these scenes the viewer sees the collapse of men's souls. And Kubrick gets this point across through one of the recruits, Lawrence. Lawrence is a bit overweight and is shown to be dim-witted. The drill instructor is merciless in his attack on him. He degrades him to the point Lawrence snaps. You can only push a man so far. I refuse to believe this is one of those "only in the movies" situations. I am convinced people who join the army or the Marines or whatever, eventually snap.

The second half of the movie now takes us to the front lines of the Vietnam war as we follow "Joker" who writes for the Marines newspaper, "Stars & Stripes". The journalism scenes are interesting in the way the military deludes itself from reality and the way the war is going. It is another form of brainwashing, hiding the truth from the soldiers.

"Joker" is sent to the city of Hue, where he meets up with his old friend Cowboy to do a story on him and his squad.

Here "Joker" will meet an interesting character nicknamed "Animal" (Adam Baldwin). He is a man who enjoys killing and brags about how many people he has taken down. And soon we say to ourselves, the men who made it through boot camp, were seen as "fit" are not mentally fit. They will never be "normal" again. They ae not able to function in civilized society again. You can't go around bragging about how many people you have killed. You can't find satisfaction in killing another human being. But, by the standards of the Marines that is a commendable trait to have.

The "Joker" character is suppose to serve as the movie's conscience, mocking military protocol. Trying to bring attention to the destructive nature of war. At every turn from his higher ups he is criticize. These people don't have a sense of humor and don't care much for his constant John Wayne impersonation. Interesting he should chose John Wayne, a heroic, masculine figure. What does that tell us about the message we send to people about fighting? We almost romanticize it with these iconic figures and movies. Young men, growing up, see someone like John Wayne and believe the idea of holding a gun and/or killing someone is masculine, The act of killing someone makes you a man.

Three of the most effective performances in the movie I feel are given by Matthew Modine, Vincent D' Onofrio and Adam Baldwin. Though I also believe the film is not about individual characters. No one character is more important than another. This is a collective piece, a collaborative acting effort.

The movie ends with a thrilling sequence involving Cowboy's squad under attack from a sniper. We are on the edge of our seats. Kubrick never shows the audience where the sniper is located. We are like those men out in the field unsure when a bullet will hit them.

One of the film's last images presents the idea of is there such a thing as a "humanity" kill? Killing someone to take them out of their misery. When you are the one pulling trigger what is the difference? The psychological effects of the act, whatever the motivation, will stay with you. No matter how you look at it, you are taking a life.

The one thing I am not sure if I like about the movie is the music. Kubrick seems to purposely use music which doesn't fit in with the scene. It is all pop songs like "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'", "Chapel of Love" and "Surfin' Bird". Martin Scorsese, to name another great filmmaker, also uses pop songs in his movies, but in that case the song will compliment the scene. In "Full Metal Jacket" the music really stands out in contrast to the scenes. Maybe that was the point. The film is about duality in a way. Still I am not sure it was a necessary move on Kubrick's part.

"Full Metal Jacket" was based on a novel by Gustav Hasford, who co-wrote the film's screenplay, called "The Short-Timers".  Michael Herr was another co-writer, who wrote his own Vietnam memoir called "Dispatches" working with Kubrick. The three of them were nominated for an Academy Award in the best adapted screenplay category. It was the film's sole nomination.

Seven years passed between Kubrick's last picture, "The Shining" (1980) and this movie. "The Shining" was also about a man who is brainwashed, who has all his humanity taken away from him. The movie is also comparable to "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) showing the effects violence has on the mind. And finally like "Paths of Glory" (1957) it is strongly anti-war.

When the movie was first released it generated a lot of support being herald as a strong anti- war film. I am glad "Platoon" didn't stop people from recommending this movie suggesting that it may fail in comparison.

I personally had to watch the movie twice before I enjoyed it. I have now seen it three times and each time I watch it I like it more and more. I keep picking up on something new. I can't wait to watch it again and this time focus even more on the words and not so much on the themes and fighting scenes. There is great intelligence to this movie.