Full Metal JacketSTANLEY KUBRICK UK 1987Full Metal Jacket is Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam movie. Period. It’s no lessidiosyncratic than his other conceptions of pure genre, and as suchexhibits his sensibilities with perhaps greater transparency than hisother films. This is to say that Full Metal Jacket is a menacing,incendiary picture, so calculated in its brutality that you’re more proneto endure its depictions of suffering than you are to enjoy it. I do enjoy it, but – as with most of Kubrick’s films – my enjoyment isforemost a response to its aesthetics and storytelling: the tracking shotsthat comprise the bulk of the film’s notable first third are very mucharchetypical; the characterizations – Animal Mother’s brimmingunderbite, Gomer Pyle’s empty stare – are so superbly detailed thatmuch of the mass of identically camouflaged soldiers may be instantlyparsed into specific people. And even if the film’s theme ofdehumanization isn’t initially clear, it’s literally pronounced midwaythrough when the melange of contradicting slogans on Private Joker’shelmet is questioned by a superior: POGUE COLONEL: You write “Born to Kill” on your helmet and you wear a peace button. What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke? PRIVATE JOKER: No, sir. POGUE COLONEL: You’d better get your head and your ass wired together, or I will take a giant shit on you.
PRIVATE JOKER: Yes, sir. POGUE COLONEL: Now answer my question or you’ll be standing tall before the man. PRIVATE JOKER: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir. POGUE COLONEL: The what? PRIVATE JOKER: The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.This – the duality of man, or rather how ostensibly good men arereconditioned into injudicious killers – is only what the film says it’sabout. The film’s opening – a montage of buzz cuts, culminating in afloor full of hair – succinctly prefaces this idea, and it’s redundantlyhammered on by the drill instructor’s relentless string of profanities.Within minutes he reduces a roomful of men into identical maggots,faggots, or some other affront in his infinite barrage of depreciatorytitles. But Full Metal Jacket is no more about the duality of man than it isabout photography or set design or the economic considerations madeby a colonel as he risks moving his fleet across dangerous terrain. It’sunlike Kubrick’s other films, which are as distinguished by theiriconography – Alex’s monocle of eyelashes, Jack Torrance’s maniacalsmile – as they are for their surfeit of Kubrickian hallmarks. Full MetalJacket’s icons are less imperative, or at least they’re devalued by otherwar movies strewn in camouflage, blankets of ammunition, anddestroyed urban locations.
Kubrick distills all the camouflage and chaos into concentratedcinematic moments, and the film has many noteworthy ones. Inparticular, late in the film Animal Mother – the most muscled andaggressive soldier – charges toward an unseen sniper, rushing pasturban decay and flash fires. He’s armed with a machine gun nearly aslong as he is tall, and strewn in belts of enormous bullets. This is aspornographic an image as any war movie could possibly possess. It’s alsoas emotionally artificial as a videogame on the same topic. It’s here that the irony of Kubrick’s penultimate film is made explicit.The idea is how soldiers must be dehumanized into killers, and how thecasualty of this dehumanization is not the enemy, but the soldiersthemselves—they become killers at the expense of their own innatecompassion. But regardless of what’s determining the emotional core ofany scene, the film remains so rapaciously visual that its central messageis obscured. We are to consider how these men are emotionally andspiritually suppressed, yet we are also excited by their endeavor toobliterate the enemy. Given the outcome of the film’s final third, in which a remarkablyskilled sniper is revealed to be a beautiful, seemingly defenseless youngwoman, I suspect that this irony may have been a deliberatemanipulation on Kubrick’s part. This revelation elicits guilt because it isat this moment that the viewer comprehends the extent of a soldier’scompromise. Nonetheless, the film’s ideas progress on a level that isn’tprecisely parallel to its aesthetics. It is possible to view this final sceneand feel the same troubling hesitance that Private Joker does, as he aimshis pistol at the fatally injured sniper. It is also likely that this hesitancewas just preceded by an anticipatory excitement as Joker and hiscolleagues engage in a suspenseful tactical penetration of the sniper’shideout. In the final scene, Joker (who’s been narrating the filmintermittently) professes that he remains “in a world of shit,” recalling
Gomer Pyle’s admission just prior to his suicide in the opening segment.This disables any sense of accomplishment or resolution. In thesemoments the irony at the heart of the film reaches an apex: these aresoldiers fighting a war they do not comprehend the purpose of, and theones that survive return home compromised. “But I am alive,” continuesJoker, “and I am not afraid.” The final image finds a mass of identical,anonymous silhouettes against a hellish, fiery background, marchingforward, deprived of any clear destination.