Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Full Metal Jacket," July 10, 1987

Standard-Examiner staff


There are bound to be comparisons between Stanley Kubrick's new film, "Full Metal Jacket," and Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning "Platoon." But such comparisons are invalid, since the two films take completely different approaches to the same subject: Vietnam.

"Full Metal Jacket" is a film that deserves equal attention, not out-of-hand dismissal as simply another Vietnam War drama. It is an astonishingly powerful movie -- a film that strikes terror in the gut and sadness in the heart.

There is brilliance on display in "Full Metal Jacket," which possesses both the technical mastery and flair for the ironic that are Kubrick's trademarks. His view of Vietnam and the decision-makers who "ran" the war are every bit as biting and sarcastic as was his treatment of similar characters and institutions in "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." War is the ultimate madness, and Kubrick is very adept at showing us how we come to participate in such mass lunacy.

Based on Gustav Hasford's novel "The Short-Timers," "Full Metal Jacket" -- which refers to a rifle shell's casing -- follows a young Marine (Matthew Modine) through boot camp and into combat during the 1968 Tet Offensive. "Pvt. Joker," as he's nicknamed by his foul-mouthed drill instructor, is an extremely bright young man who attempts to use his sense of humor as a shield against the horrors of Marine Corps boot camp and, later, the war.

Kubrick spends nearly half the film in boot camp, and his portrait of the experience is absolutely mesmerizing. The tracking shots similar to the ones he used to great effect in "The Shining" follow the drill instructor (Lee Ermey) around the sterile confines of the barracks as he verbally and physically assaults his group of skinheads into submissiveness.

Ermey, a former Marine who has served as technical adviser on the films "Apocalypse Now," "The Boys in Company C" and "Purple Hearts," steals every scene he's in. I can't remember seeing such a powerful -- and coarsely profane -- portrayal of a drill instructor. Clint Eastwood's similar character in "Heartbreak Ridge" is a sissy compared to Ermey's sadistic gunnery sergeant.

The drill instructor's attempt to transform his men into killers is executed with a combination of punishment, back-handed praise and outright savagery. When a young man with a weight problem -- nicknamed "Pvt. Pyle," after Gomer -- continually fails to excel at even the most simple tasks, the drill instructor punishes the other men because they have not provided enough "incentive" for Pyle to correct his mistakes.

Joker is placed in charge of Pyle's reformation, and the incentive eventually meted out by Pyle's comrades is shocking, precipitating a radical switch in the young man's attitude toward the Corps. The drill instructor's job is to make killers out of teenagers in the space of a few months -- to tear them down and build them back up again according to the Marine Corps blueprint. In essence, according to Kubrick and co-writers Hasford and Michael Herr ("Dispatches"), the young men are driven mad by design. In Pyle's case, however, the Corps is unable to direct his insanity in the "proper" direction.

When Joker is sent to Vietnam, it's as a writer for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. The assignment suits his cynical attitude and he proudly struts his stuff around the edges of the war with "Born to Kill" scrawled across his helmet and a peace sign buttoned to his lapel -- a walking, talking contradiction. He remains close enough to observe the action, but distant enough to never fire his weapon.

He spends most of his time covering USO shows and the like, sharpening his wit on fellow staffers and editors. Then comes the Tet Offensive, and one of Joker's ill-timed wisecraoks gets him sent to Hue City to report on the street-to-street fighting there. Hue is where the action is. All of a sudden, it's "bye, bye safety" and "hello, front lines" for Joker, and his boot camp education is finally put to use.

It's been a long time since American involvement ended in Vietnam, and even longer since the Tet Offensive. But Kubrick successfully evokes the haunting political demagoguery that put U.S. troops there in the first place, and that kept them going there long after they should have. When an officer questions Joker about the dichotomy in wearing both the peace symbol and the born-to-kill slogan, Joker replies that he's attempting to comment on the "duality of man." But even this rather crude philosophical outlook is too much for the officer to grasp, and he urges Joker to "get with the program until this peace craze blows over."

There are many such moments in "Full Metal Jacket." And, like most previous Kubrick pictures, the film is long on detached analysis and dark humor, and less than involving when it comes to audience-character relationships. In short, there aren't a whole lot of guys in this film that people will warm up to. It's a movie about kids who have been turned into cold, emotionless zombie killers. The few times they do open up are welcome, but the film isn't really about emotion -- it's about youth being stolen and never returned.

And on that level the film is most assuredly successful. "Full Metal Jacket" is the mean side of "Platoon." It's the movie that tells us how these boys got to be the way they are, how they had hate pumped into their heads until they cracked or learned to cope and survive. It is extremely difficult to watch, at times, due to the intensity of the brutality and profanity. But, ultimately, it is affecting -- an anti-war film that ravages the notion of war as a noble cause. And while it may not be as involving on an emotional level as "Platoon," it is a glorious bit of mastery that cannot be ignored.