If Dr. Strangelove is the Aristophanes or Voltaire or Orwell, if Stanley Kubrick subverted its material with verbal wit and expressionistic foreplay, with Full Metal Jacket he blows his narrative load with the satirical equivalent of one of John T. Chick’s Christian tracts that people leave on bus seats disguised as money. It’s a film whose un-tempered acidity towards masculine hero types reads like the very bumper sticker philosophy it decries in every foul-tasting second of undeveloped action and bullet fragments of narrative. “God has a hard-on for marines,” the drill sergeant says. Kubrick has one for montages.
Full Metal Jacket has two halves. The first is an expose of fetishized masculine war fantasies via Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s cloying rants on sex and racism. Its pervy sensuality takes hold and never lets go, as Hartman instructs his men to grab their rifles “for fighting” and grab their reproductive guns “for fun.” They have to name their rifles and grasp them in their bunks with a love poem for a prayer. Heavy-handed Kubrick seems to know what he wants from this half and the performances sound off.
Reportedly, real-life drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey was brought onto the production as an advisor before he was cast as Hartman and his 250 pages of improvised rants were incorporated into the final script in all their red-faced fuming glory. Ermey is the film’s decades-long aftertaste that makes you recall Full Metal Jacket with a loving sneer, forgetting that his part lasts only 40 minutes. Is it Kubrick’s failure or success that a real-life sergeant playing himself is his satire’s most memorable part?
Vincent D’Onofrio plays Pvt. Pyle, so named for his paunch and clumsy grin. He’s a mama’s boy with dim lights in the attic who smiles through a shit storm of insults, bemused just to get the attention. But when Hartman turns the class against him, Pyle becomes a figure of shadowy vengeance, of repressed little boy rage rebelling against The Man. The film climaxes early at around 40 minutes. This segment alone would be a great commentative short on wartime phallacies. But there’s another hour of embarrassing narrative dysfunction to go.
In it, soldiers skulk around re-enacting war movies with a studio backlot look that inadequately prods at the effectiveness of much better war films, from All Quiet on the Western Front to Apocalypse Now. Nonexistent character arcs are only exasperated by stagy battlefield commentary of over-rehearsed political shorthand shelled out by a bunch of dirty dudes just looking for a little “boom boom” on the backlot. Full Metal Jacket feels like a soundstage, the one thing war crime drama can’t survive. A recurring prostitute is a tempting proposition, but Kubrick doesn’t know what to do with it. There’s no payoff to any of this second hour, filled with the kind of blunt sermonizing that folks who never won debates on the playground probably think is a work of notable criticism.
But we know that Kubrick is capable of satire, if not of politics than at least of genre. Gen. Buck Turgidson didn’t need to moan like Hartman over Eskimo queef before singing Happy Birthday to Jesus to get his point across in Dr. Strangelove. All he needed was a pratfall. War’s idiom went tumbling down with him. In Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick so nearsightedly approaches his target he practically martyrizes the wrong belief.
It reads as a shortlist of all the problems with book-to-film adaptations. It has square monologues shoved in star-spangled holes. It has so few scenes with a sense of character that you could drop the script for the film’s second half, pick it back up in whatever order, and the disjunctive effect would be about the same. Private Joker (Matthew Modine) is the film’s through-line, as the only character featured in both halves, but we know little of him besides what we gathered from the Peace button on his lapel counterpointed by the “Born to Kill” scrawl on his helmet. “I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man,” he says. This is helpful to know—I wasn’t under the impression he had thought it through that far.
I’m not sure Kubrick did either. Conversations in Full Metal Jacket are as cursory as the shootouts, which feel like cutting room scraps of every war film ever, filtered through some 7’o clock news bulletins circa 1966. Full Metal Jacket uses such media opinion to metastasize its anti-war buggery in the national palette of the war film and it ends up being so reluctant to make a movie out of all its hash-tagged beliefs that it never stops sucking for an hour and fifty minutes. Apocalypse Now enunciated war through the image of the industrialized human spirit's roaring struggle for godlike power, which Kubrick can only approach with a whimper too literally entrenched in politics to become very meaningful in the scheme of images. All we need is Jane Fonda straddling a Viet Cong cannon aimed at John Wayne’s head to make the point any clearer.
Wayne comes up a lot in Kubrick’s ode to the kind of anti-war zealotry that Vietnam reporting turned into a fully fetishized anti-soldier campaign. In it, pornography and rifle shooting clot together in a plot too scabbed over with un-events and non-scenes to make its point much better than a campaign button, from the film’s half-way break on. Paris Island promises a different story, with harsh litanies of love poetry sung to a man’s rifle, with Hartman lecturing his recruits on the demonstrative skill of a marine’s prowess using President-killers as examples. Tubby Pvt. Pyle is the film’s only development worthy of its celluloid. So what is Full Metal Jacket to do when he leaves the frame? The acerbic hatred it has for humanity translates to a refusal to nurture its own development, like its characters are the children it never wanted. With that home life, how can we expect them to grow up better than they have, as narrative lay-abouts and emotional underachievers?
I’m not saying every film has to be a hangout of crisp Americana via Rio Bravo, just as I'm not saying all reporting has to be. But these two halves of a nothing film show up miraculously often on lists of great films, as though politically bashing a historical easy target somehow gives it a pass on the most basic rules of engaging an audience and developing characters. I sometimes wonder what motivates us to assign such meaning here, whether it’s that much hatred of this war or that much love of Kubrick, because the great director himself only thinks he’s trying to suggest something with Full Metal Jacket, a film so reluctant to cohere that its best parts are improvised.
Cast & Crew
|Pvt./ Sgt. James "Joker" Davis||Matthew Modine|
|Pvt. Leonard "Pyle" Lawrence||Vincent D'Onofrio|
|Gunnery Sergeant Hartman||R. Lee Ermey|
|Sgt. "Animal Mother"||Adam Baldwin|
|Pvt./ Sgt. Robert "Cowboy" Evans||Arliss Howard|
|Cpl. "Eightball"||Dorian Harewood|
|Pvt. "Rafterman"||Kevyn Major Howard|