Full Metal Jacket

In the 1990s, Robert Mapplethorpe became the most infamous photographer in the world after an exhibition of his homoerotic and BDSM work titled “The Perfect Moment” debuted, containing some of the most explicit photography ever to be shown in an art museum. After that, when looking at his 80s flower still lifes, critics found a veritable smorgasbord of Freudian metaphors; some artists can’t help but be provocative. In the world of film, no director ever split opinions as consistently and ferociously as Stanley Kubrick. It’s a testament to his  timelessness that the 2001: A Space Odyssey IMDb message board is still flooded with new viewers who proclaim the film either a singular masterpiece and work of genius, or a boring piece of crap that’s just “art for art’s sake” and a case of Emperor’s New Clothes. Full Metal Jacket is an interesting entry into Kubrick’s oeuvre if only because it’s one of his most consistently praised films (probably only behind Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, and Spartacus in how universally well-liked it is), but least talked about.

The film splits neatly into two sections, with the first third involving a marine boot camp and the second two-thirds involving part of that group in Vietnam. In both sections, the film stars Matthew Modine as Private (later Sergeant) James “Joker” Davis, who signed up for the marines in order to kill, but ironically goes into journalism as a writer in Vietnam. The first section stars R Lee Ermey, who plays Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in one of the most iconic roles in any Kubrick film, and Vincent D’Onofrio who plays Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, who is brutally harassed by Hartman because of his weight, lack of physical capabilities, and mental slowness. Arliss Howard is Private (later Sergeant) “Cowboy” Evans, who becomes the leader of a unit in Vietnam that includes the kill-happy, big-gun toting, nihilistic Sergeant “Animal Mother” (Adam Baldwin). Just like the first third is self-contained inside the boot camp, the last third finds Joker, Cowboy, Animal Mother, and others pinned down by a hidden Viet Cong sniper, caught in a no man’s land both geographically and morally.

If FMJ is little talked about (although, even the least controversial Kubrick film is bound to generate more discussion than most) it’s probably because even an artist of Kubrick’s piercing intellect and artistic insight has trouble finding anything new to say about war or any new way to depict it. A better title for the film would’ve been “Straight Jacket”, as it constantly feels like Kubrick is trying to shed the traditional limitations that his subject matter has imposed on him, and FMJ’s best and worst moments are always the result of his success or failure at that endeavor. Kubrick faced this same problem before with Paths of Glory. But while Paths found him at his most dramatically conventional (and, arguably, conventionally dramatically potent), FMJ finds him attempting to incorporate the more ambiguous and provocative stylings of the films he cultivated from 2001 onward. It even has his trademark “madman glare,” which has an actor in close-up with his head down, looking up at the camera with furrowed brows (ala A Clockwork Orange and The Shining).

Structurally and dramatically, FMJ is Kubrick at his most unsure and even, dare I say, sloppy. He certainly wasn’t a stranger to unconventional film structures, but even a work as radical as 2001 felt concatenated by its themes, aesthetic, and the narrative MacGuffin (of sorts) with the monolith. The first third in the boot camp and the last third with the sniper are practically self-contained short-films, with few relevant links between them besides a few characters, historical setting, and the theme of war. Part of the problem is that the first third is so strong, especially with D’Onofrio and Ermey who utterly steal the show with their performances and characters that they and their section cast a monolithic shadow over the rest of the film that Kubrick is never able to move out of. Granted, that lack of focus may even have been intentional by Kubrick, who was always a master at constructing the most tightly controlled, intricately sculpted narratives.

The first third even continues this tradition. Indeed, Kubrick has rarely been so symmetrical in his compositions, camera movement, and editing patterns or insistent in his repetitions. The entire section consists of little more than variations on discipline in the bunkroom, outdoor training, and marches. The visuals emphasize deep-focus patterned uniformity in the “still” moments, as in the numerous shots of soldiers lined-up either when standing or lying down, and a similar uniformity of movement in scenes like the repeated marches. Even Kubrick’s tracking shots take place in perfectly straight lines, typically vertical with Hartman walking straight towards the camera. This, along with the nicknames that Hartman gives the recruits, emphasizes the nature of de-individualization and collectivity that any military unit strives for. The masses of soldiers standing or marching are as unique as ants in a line, and those who express any kind of personality (Joker), or inability to maintain the group standard (Pyle), are instantly singled out for ruthless discipline. Even Joker’s first wise-crack results in one of the film’s first cuts, which has Kubrick tracking diagonally from down-right to mid-left and Hartman stomping from up-right to down-left, with camera and character converging in the middle on Joker.

Any hint of structural, stylistic, or dramatic symmetry is gone in the second two-thirds, which feel strangely amorphous and utterly lacking in solidarity, focus, and purpose, leaving the film in a dramatic, thematic, and moral limbo. Whether intended by Kubrick or not, these sections stand in stark contrast to the first, and it seems to emphasize the breakdown of stringent military discipline when actually in the field, and perhaps even the purposelessness of the Vietnam War, if not all war itself. The clean and bare rooms have changed to the messy barracks. The wide-open, manufactured training grounds have changed to the claustrophobic ruins of unidentifiable building structures. Even the lighting has changed, moving from the virgin white flatness of the fluorescents on the base to the uneven natural light of the outdoor sets that Kubrick constructed in England. Essentially, there’s nothing in Vietnam that reinforces the purposeful rigidity and discipline of the training that leads the soldiers there.

Kubrick was always a stylist rather than any documentarian, but he was more adept at presenting life as it was without imposing judgment in that stylization than most documentarians are without it, and that lack of imposition has never been more apropos, or more of a liability than here. On the one hand, he still forces the audience to think for themselves about what’s been really lost and gained by the war but, on the other hand, there simply isn’t as much substance to chew on here as in his best films. That lack of substance leaves the film vulnerable to the more traditional criticisms that have plagued most of Kubrick’s films, namely his unusual, more distanced approach to characterizations and drama. The second third of the film is just plain dull, offering only superficially impressionistic glimpses of life in Vietnam. It’s telling that “Me so horny, me love you long time” has become the most memorable thing from here. It does offer some satirical asides, but these feel completely out of place, like bad leftovers from Dr. Strangelove.

The final third amps up the action, but is surprisingly stale for a Kubrick film, offering little new on the “soldiers pinned down by sniper fire” war-film trope. The ultimate revelation of the sniper and Joker’s final act ring with a shallow hollowness that’s unusual for any Kubrick film. Mathew Modine also isn’t charismatic enough, nor Joker a strong enough character, to really pull us through these two sections with any human interest either. Even the first third, as good as it is, has its share of problems that are too often overlooked. Am I the only one who feels like Pyle’s homicidal/suicidal madness is ill timed and dramatically incoherent? Sure, Hartman does some pretty bad things to him throughout the section, but wouldn’t anyone go into a military boot camp expecting such treatment? And why would he finally snap after he had finally started receiving praise for being an excellent marksman? The section also suffers a bad case of entropy, with each repetition adding less and less substance to the drama, themes, or characters.

Ultimately, FMJ may be Kubrick’s weakest film from his mature years. Yet, with all its flaws, it’s still not a bad film by any means. In fact, it’s probably much better than my review has made it sound. Technically, it’s pristine, and I think it was impossible for Kubrick to make a bad looking film. Even the music is some of his most subtly affective, especially an electronic, almost industrial version of the march that plays in the first section, which is one of the more menacing pieces of music I’ve ever heard in any film. All of the flaws are more like the cheap pieces of plastic and glue splotches you find when you start examining a well-engineered machine. But Kubrick was always a perfectionist, and more than most all other directors his films typically stood up to this kind of nit-pick analysis, getting better and better and more and more impressive the closer you looked. FMJ works superficially, but it certainly doesn’t leave the viewer with that feeling of awe and astonishment that his best works do.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

7 Responses to Full Metal Jacket

  1. OneHandClapper says:

    Good review, Jonathan. I always thought that FMJ was one of Kubrick’s weakest films, next to Eyes Wide Shut. You might want to check out the three-part movie “The human condition” by the great (and often overlooked) Japanese director Masaki Kobayasi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Human_Condition_(film_trilogy)) if you haven’t already. In the second part, “Road to Eternity”, there’s a scene very similar to the one featuring D’Onofrio with a rifle in his mouth. That, and the similarities between “A Clockwork Orange” and “Funeral Parade of Roses” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funeral_Parade_of_Roses) makes me think that Kubrick had a thing for Japanese cinema.

  2. Jonathan Henderson says:

    Thanks, OneHandClapper. Kobayashi’s Human Condition is certainly on my enormously long list of films to watch. I was extremely impressed with his Harakiri and Kwaidan. I’m pretty sure Kubrick WAS a fan of Japanese cinema. At least, I know he expressed regard for Kurosawa, and I’m sure if he loved Kurosawa his knowledge didn’t end there.

  3. Spencer says:

    Oh come on, this review completely misses the point of the film. The film is about supposedly anti war films being pro war (even the rediculously overrated Apocalypse ‘has nothing to do with Vietnam’ Now) and supposedly anti war citizens being the perfect vehicles for spreading blood capitalism.

  4. Jonathan Henderson says:

    Hmmm, it’s an interesting interpretation but I’m not sure how you’re reading that into FMJ. With the exception of those sequences with the camera crew documenting/following the soldiers, there isn’t much meta elements in the film, and I think it’s difficult to glean from that a comment about how anti-war films are pro war.

  5. J.D says:

    The last half hour said more about the vietnam war than any other film on the subject.We see young scared men,firing aimlessly at an enemy they can’t see.It also shows the absurdities of combat.One moment,a soldier ducks underneath a hole,the next moment he forgets to…and he’s shot dead.There are no heroes,no cliched,badly acted cartoon characters like in platoon.Their just average men,normal human beings trying to survive,and they make human errors.This is the most powerfully entertaining,and suspenseful war film ive ever seen.It has so many elements,its not only a anti-military,anti-war satire.Its also part drama/documentary/horror/thriller.its as close to perfect as a film can get.Full metal jacket’s middle(2nd act is its weakest)but that’s in part because it can’t match the tension and suspense of the 1st and 3rd acts.It’s got some great moments as well,(the door gunner,surfin bird,that long steadicam shot entering hue city that spielberg ripped off for saving private ryan,the two hooker scenes).I believe kubrick first presented vietnam as a parody,a surreal black comedy,built on how war was presented in other films,a sort of film within a film.Then after the second hooker scene,the 3rd act(the sniper scene),the myths of combat are destroyed.This IS the greatest war film ever made,and its not even close.

  6. Jonathan Henderson says:

    I can appreciate your enthusiasm for the film but I simply can’t share it. I don’t see how the “scared men firing aimlessly at an enemy they can’t see” is any different in FMJ than in the countless other war films that show scared soldiers firing blindly at enemies they can’t see, like when the soldiers begin getting sniped at from the jungle in Apocalypse Now, just to name one. There are no heroes, fine, but, again, a lot of war films share that quality. Even taking something like Hawks’ Sergeant York or Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, which are films about the disillusionment of heroism, about the ideal not matching the events and the people, certainly not from their perspective. Likewise, can you really claim that no other war film presents characters making mistakes? As far as it being perfect, I think one prerequisite for any “perfect” film would be to have a strong sense of coherency throughout. Even episodic films, like Rossellini’s Paisan, needs a thread that makes the whole greater than the sum, and I really can’t find that thread in FMJ. Finally, FWIW, as for Kubrick’s steadicam that Spielberg “ripped off”, Kubrick ripped off those long steadicam/tracking shots from Max Ophuls anyway. All film–hell, all art–is nothing but a long procession of new artists ripping off past artists.

    As for greatest war film, I’m honestly not a huge fan of the sub-genre, but I’ll take most of those I’ve named above before FMJ, and I’ll throw in The Thin Red Line and Kubrick’s own Paths of Glory.

  7. J.D says:

    Where is this ”lack of coherency” people keep talking about in this film?It goes from boot camp to the war,what do people want,a scene after pyle’s murder suicide,where joker’s in his girlfriends arms,telling her how bad he feels?I don’t get this ridiculous arguement.Even on the surface,you can see there is a thread.Put simply,kubrick shows us two characters(pyle and joker),one loses his innocence during boot camp,and one loses his during war.You also mention,that pyle’s mental collapse is not realistic.But remember,the last 5 minutes of the 1st act,come after graduation.But that’s impossible,since they wouldn’t be in the barracks after graduating,so its obvious,this last scene,is really joker’s nightmare.And about ophuls,kubrick ripped off his use of the tracking shot,not the steadicam,which hadn’t been invented yet.And true,all artists rip people off,but the main shots in SPR’s battle scenes,are rip offs of three war films from kubrick.paths of glory’s tracking shots,p.o.v from the german machine gun,ripped off from dr.strangelove,and that long steadicam,of joker’s platoon entering hue city.

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