Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr & Gustav Hasford

In recent months I have expanded my Stanley Kubrick knowledge and appreciation a great deal, having seen, and generally enjoyed, 4 of his films. It is clearly evident to me at this juncture that Kubrick was a brilliant filmmaker and worthy of every bit of praise that gets laid upon him. However, of the Kubrick films I have seen, The Shining stands as the one I enjoyed the least. You could even say that I had a general disdain for it, though perhaps now having seen more of his style I would change my opinion. But bringing up that film is important because I felt like Full Metal Jacket is a good companion to it, as well as a good example of what I do, and don’t like about Stanley Kubrick as a filmmaker.

The films opens in a US Marine boot camp with a hodgepodge of young men looking to make a difference in the conflict in Vietnam. However, standing in their way is a hardy drill sergeant (R. Lee Ermey), who makes everybody in the unit feel like the lowest of the low, pushing them to become the men they will have to be when they go to Vietnam. The film focuses on two of these young men. Joker (Matthew Modine), as he is nicknamed by the drill sergeant, is the most grounded of the bunch and as such becomes the units leader, mentoring another struggling soldier, Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), another great nickname. Soon the pressures get to Pyle, and Joker, filled with his experiences at the boot camp, confronts his fears on the front lines in Vietnam after having served in a journalistic unit.

This film has always escaped me. Despite it being released before I was born, a few of my friends had always made sure I knew of its existence, which I guess wasn’t the hardest thing to endure. Gomer Pyle was a character I had heard of. I knew R. Lee Ermey was the hard nosed boot camp dictator, yet it still escaped me. And even now after having seen it, it still seems to escape me, only in a different way. Very similar to Eyes Wide Shut, a film by Stanley Kubrick I also recently saw for the first time, Full Metal Jacket has such a strange and unique construction that it has been difficult to consume and to take. It is filled with cinematic brilliance, all the while being two entirely different film experiences in the same run time. The best I can do is be able to apply my own thought process to what Kubrick did, or was trying to do, and hope for the best. And I certainly think having seen a number of other films by Kubrick aided me in my interpretation of the film, then again maybe not.

The first part of the film, which doesn’t last quite as long as the whole first half, is filled with the boot camp in South Carolina. This part of the film was fantastic. I was having a great time with R. Lee Ermey and his ability to amaze. If I were in Gomer Pyle’s shoes, I would have had a hard time wiping that grin off my face too. The pacing and dialogue were out of this world in terms of recreating the sense of a boot camp. And it was hilarious to boot. But it also had it’s dark side: Gomer Pyle. I felt Vincent D’Onofrio was similar to Jack Nicholson in The Shining in his performance, which is to say too over the top. His demented spirit is all too obvious, but does make for some truly tense drama. Once the boot camp concludes, the second film begins in Vietnam as Joker must deal with the horrors of war.

That part of the film was much less entertaining because it became much more like other war film I had seen than I wanted it to be given the opening. But I think that is part of what makes it work so well within the film. War films sometimes can glorify it, which is an unfortunate occurrence, but it happens. The first half of the film kind of communicated that to me, but in a different way. It depicted those soldiers, not having a good time by any means, but in a manner that I, the viewer, was having a good time. It was a posture of what war seems like when you aren’t really there. But then when the war actually started I was much less engaged. It was hard to stomach what these men were going through, because war is really like that. It is a hell we should not wish on our worst enemies, even if it is seemingly inevitable given the cruel nature of man.

Like I said, I am probably just reading way too much into this given my appreciation of Kubrick, and even as I make the argument that he could have constructed the film in some mad way which makes it middling, yet brilliant for it, I still came out of the film with the feeling that it was middling. The opening part of the film is without a doubt brilliant for what it does, but even with my imagination running wild, it is difficult to overlook how little I really liked the parts in Vietnam, although it had its moments.


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