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The films of Stanley Kubrick stand in a room all their own. Each one is based in literature, each one is different than the last and each one is made by a director so obsessed with perfection. After the 1960s, his obsession with detail meant that films with the “A film by Stanley Kubrick” words were few and far between. After the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, he made just five films before his death in 1999. Following the success of The Shining in 1980, Kubrick spent years filming his own Vietnam War in England for Full Metal Jacket, which finally hit theaters in June, 1987.
Unfortunately, that was just months after Platoon's release and that film's subsequent Best Picture Oscar win. While that hampered the film's immediate success, the very fact that it is a Kubrick film meant that it would not be forgotten. It has been 25 years since the film opened and it is still considered among the best war movies ever made.
Full Metal Jacket, which is loosely based on Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers, follows two Marines, 'Joker' (Matthew Modine) and 'Cowboy' (Arliss Howard), from their days in training on Parris Island to the fighting in the Tet Offensive. As noted thousands of times, the film's true genius lies in the first 45 minutes of the film. The film opens with a montage of our main characters getting their hair shaved off, becoming dehumanized machines. It's as if Kubrick knows that there is no point in the audience learning about the life of these men, because if it doesn't matter to the military, it won't matter to us.
From this point, Kubrick introduces us to the recruits through their responses to Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), who launches oppressive insults, many of which have become etched in film history. We also meet 'Gomer Pyle' (Vincent D'Onofrio), who becomes Hartman's favorite target. Pyle consistently fails during the training and is forced to take the brunt of Hartman's insults. The carelessness by which Hartman launches these attacks weighs heavily on Pyle, to the point where each insult feels like a punch to not only his gut, but ours as well.
In the second half of the film, we find Joker stationed as a journalist with Stars And Stripes in Da Nang, working with Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard). They soon find themselves in the midst of the Tet Offensive, as the North Vietnamese try to overrun their base. Joker reunites with Cowboy, who is now second-in-command in a squad that Joker is assigned to cover. Finally he gets a chance to get in the “sh*t,” but through his experiences, he learns that he is truly in a whole “world of sh*t.”
Sure, it is hard to deny the fact that the last part of the film may seem pedestrian by Kubrick standards, but I do think that is an insult to the master director's skills. I get the feeling that most people who may criticize this half haven't seen Kubrick's fantastic 1957 film Paths of Glory, a scathing anit-war film set in WWI with Kirk Douglas being forced to command his troops to try to accomplish an impossible task. He then has to defend three of his men who are put on trial for treason for refusing to follow the order.
Kubrick filmed trench warfare in very much the same way he does with Full Metal Jacket's battle scenes, especially as the squad storms the building towards the end. His camera puts us right in the “sh*t” ourselves, which is also reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's garden maze run in The Shining or the bomber scenes in Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick might be criticized of dehumanizing his characters, but he can never be criticized for dehumanizing the audience. He knows when the audience needs to see things afar and when to bring them back in and make them involved.
The acting in this film is also fantastic. Modine is really underrated. Everyone wants to talk about D'Onforio and Ermy, but Modine really shines, particularly at the end when he holds a gun to the head of the wounded sniper.
Full Metal Jacket remains a welcome addition to Kubrick's canon, despite its imperfections. War was an important topic that ran through Kubrick's work and one he often revisited, since it was a perfect backdrop for his themes, which even crop up in his other work. He explored how technology often overwhelms humans, but the only ones who pay that price are the humans who can't handle the pressure.
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