June 29: #17, Full Metal Jacket
Kubrick explores the messy ambiguity of the Vietnam War.
Spoiler alert: I've seen this movie a dozen times and I love it. I know there's a sizable camp of folks out there who say that the basic training part of the film is better than the rest and use that criticism to knock the whole package, but I disagree. Even if it's the best part of the movie, the entire thing is still great.
But yes, the basic training part is fantastic. It's really the only war film that really takes advantage of that important part of the soldier's experience and puts it at center stage. In this case, Kubrick turns up the heat by including the kind of psychological torture that even former drill instructor R. Lee Ermey (who's amazing in this, as you already know) says wouldn't have flown in the actual Marines.
According to star Matthew Modine, Kubrick even turned the actors on each other to get a little more authenticity in their performances. Modine admitted in an interview that he and Vincent D'Onofrio (superb as Private Pyle) began to dislike each other during the shooting, despite being real life friends beforehand. But to reduce this film to just the basic training, which yeah, includes a lot of great lines from Ermey and a classic descent into madness by D'Onofrio, does it a disservice as a lot of the meat comes in the second act.
|Don't feel bad, Pyle. I probably couldn't do this shit, either.|
It's when we reach Vietnam that we fully explore the prevailing theme of the movie, which Joker kindly spoon-feeds us later on when he explains that his peace symbol pin and helmet inscription of “Born to Kill” are intended to represent “the duality of man.” Everywhere you look in this film, you see evidence of that duality.
Look at the outward, rather blunt racism voiced by such characters as Animal Mother, despite the obvious love he has for his black brothers in arms. How about when Joker flips in an instant from discussing the meltdown of Pyle to wanting to bang Cowboy's sister, without so much as a change of tone?
Full Metal Jacket really explores the implications of sending very young men overseas to fight our wars. These young men who have barely lived their own lives are trained to be killers. We're meant to see early on that Pyle is not fit for duty, but was Pyle really that much more fucked up than the murderous gunner in the helicopter who brags about killing civilian women and children or Animal Mother?
Unlike in a lot of his other films, Kubrick isn't afraid to get a little more visceral with his shots this time around. The low-angle handheld cameras that follow the platoon as they advance forward late in the movie or the point-of-view shots when Ermey screams at a soldier or the soldiers eulogize their dead brothers are evidence of how important it was to Kubrick that audiences feel like they're in the platoon with these guys.
|"Do you realize how many simple carbs are in this donut, Private Pyle? Do you know how much fat is in this donut? I AM TRYING TO HELP YOU EAT BELOW MAINTENANCE AND ADOPT A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE!"|
Just as with A Clockwork Orange or The Shining, this movie demands a lot from its star and without an excellent performance from Matthew Modine, it just wouldn't have worked. Fortunately, Modine and the large supporting cast were all up to the task. Nobody seems like they're “playing soldier” and they wear the enormity of the film's situations on their faces well.
It's always been a cute thing to call Full Metal Jacket two movies, but in actuality it's more like three. There's basic training, the deployment, and the final sequence, where everything comes to fruition. The film simply wouldn't be as great as it is if any of those parts were missing, no matter how entertaining and rewatchable the opening act is.