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, 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 (a la 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 after. 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 it’s 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 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.