Stanley Kubrick’s look at the Vietnam War isn’t only a commentary on the war itself, but the dissolution of the self, and the soul of humanity to be replaced by an animal nature that restrains us a species and diminishes who we are.
From the introduction to the Marine Corps on Parris Island, South Carolina, we see how men are broken down, and rebuilt as killing machines, trained to not think of their enemy as people, but as targets to be used, abused and executed. Through the shaping of Joker (Matthew Modine), Cowboy (Arliss Howard), and eventual breakdown of Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) under the brutal instruction of Gunnery Sergeant Hartmen (R. Lee Emery in an iconic performance), the viewer is subjected to the reality and the brutality of the Vietnam conflict.
The training dominates the first half of the film, and it pays off, we see everything that these young men go through, from being shorn of their hair as the film opens to receiving their assignments, and fates, before being shipped off to the Jewel of the East.
The transition is a little jarring, as we aren’t plunged into the typical Vietnam war movie trappings of jungle and green, but find ourselves in a city, based at Da Nang, and suffering through the Tet offensive, all while Joker works for the Stars and Stripes.
On assignment he gets to catch up with Cowboy and his squad, which includes Eightball (Dorian Harewood) and Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), and it is here that we not only see the vileness and violence that is war, through Kubrick’s unflinching objective camera’s eye. We stay with the squad for the last quarter of the film, and it’s intense, troubling, and shows us what was done to these men, and consequently, what they were able to do because of their training.
Full Metal Jacket is arguably one of the best war movies of all time, it doesn’t paint a glorious, flag-waving picture of the violence that is inherent in such conflicts, but simply lets the viewer absorb and judge on their own.
Kubrick creates memorable images with his frames, everything is planned and designed, there’s a reason for everything in his pictures, and there is something to see in each image and set-up. It doesn’t feel as cold and distant as some of his films, there’s an immediacy to it, an in-your-face-try-and-deny-my-existence aggressiveness to it that won’t be denied.
The film is designed to leave you shell shocked by the end of the tale, having gone through basic training and a final confrontation with mortality, and Kubrick’s film continues to do just that. Stunning. Thought-provoking. Enduring. Kubrick remains a master.