Full Metal Jacket (1987) - Synopsis
Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), based on the screenplay and novel (Short Timers) of Gustav Hasford is a worthwhile, though sometimes disappointing attempt to add to the already rich tradition of Vietnam War movies. Almost a cross between the intense cinematography of Apocalypse Now and the dire realism of Platoon, Kubrick's film tries a different approach to war films, centering its focus on the individual experience, from the first day of Marine Corps boot camp to the veteran mentality of a Marine who has been "in country" too long.
From among the many examples of films based on novels falling short of audience expectations, "Full Metal Jacket" is a certain exception. Hasford's novel is much more a direct dialogue of action, rather than any significant commentary and attempt at descriptive energy. The film is successful in personalizing war for the audience, providing a perspective glance at selected trials of a soldier. Its advantage, as with most war movies, is its reliance on powerful imagery that goes beyond the ability of many writers. There is, of course, the standard firefight in several scenes, but the film also adds the sense of "thereness" at boot camp, the sickening feeling from the sight of dead bodies, and even a sequence from an enemy sniper's perspective. The audience leaves the film with Kubrick's selective snapshot of the Marine Corps and of Vietnam, hopefully with some sense of a soldier's reaction to it all.
"Full Metal Jacket (1987)" begins at Parris Island for one platoon's first day of recruit training. We meet Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey), the senior drill instructor, and several privates he decides to pick out and nickname: Joker (Matthew Modine), Cowboy (Arliss Howard), and Gomer Pyle (Vince D'Onofrio). This initial nicknaming symbolizes the Corps' method of breaking down average men and rebuilding them as killers, removing their born identity. The most notable nickname is D'Onofrio's character, an overweight recruit who is on Hartman's bad side from the very beginning. Much of the boot camp scenes\ focus on Pyle's struggle to make it under Hartman, leading to a descent into insanity and an eventual showdown with the drill instructor. This conflict is the most well done part of the movie in terms of a coherent story, but unfortunately, it ends with the end of boot camp and the new Marines' shipment to Vietnam.
At this point, the film is carried by its cinematography, though even that becomes repetitious in the end. The problem is, as Roger Ebert points out, that it becomes a series of short stories, all with beginnings, yet very few with middles or ends. There is a sexual tension played out with two prostitute scenes, but the scenes are set next to other scenes with very different themes. Joker, who becomes a combat correspondent, decides to pay for sex in one scene and is seen arguing his distaste in for false reporting in the next one.
This incoherence stays for the rest of the film, but fortunately, Kubrick's intentions remain clear, and he manages to convey the distasteful irony between the desire for combat and the reality of war. Joker voices his urge several times to "get in the shit," yet when he finally does, his old buddy Cowboy is killed by a sniper's bullet. The final combat sequence is a captivating realization of fear, when Joker is almost killed, culminating in a rite of passage when he must put a bullet in the head of the sniper who killed Cowboy.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) remains classic Vietnam genre material in many ways, with its period music and language, and therefore, is a minimal success. The addition of the twisted sensibilities of war take it to the next level, however. Joker sums up this idea when he says in response to why he came to Vietnam, "I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture--and kill them."