Full Metal Jacket (1987) | Review by Pauline Kael

Chances are that when Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket is at midpoint a lot of moviegoers will be asking themselves what it’s going to be about, and when it’s over they still won’t know.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) directed by Stanley Kubrick


by Pauline Kael

Chances are that when Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket is at midpoint a lot of moviegoers will be asking themselves what it’s going to be about, and when it’s over they still won’t know. The picture stays reasonably close to its source, Gustav Hasford’s compressed, white-hot Vietnam novel The Short-Timers, which came out in 1979; much of the dialogue is taken directly from the book. Yet the short, spare novel has an accumulating force of horror and the movie doesn’t, though it prepares for it in the long first section, set in the Marine Corps training camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. Private Joker (Matthew Modine) and the other recruits are methodically brutalized by the hateful gunnery sergeant (Lee Ermey), whose small-mindedness and impersonality are faintly funny. The man shouts abuse at us just about nonstop for three-quarters of an hour, and he punctuates his shouting with slaps on the trainees’ faces, punches in the gut, and other assorted punishments. This section is basic training stripped down to a cartoonish horrorshow; it’s military S&M. Kubrick seems to know exactly what he’s doing here. He’s so narrowly geared to the immediate purpose that he fails to establish the characters who will figure later in the film, but he achieves his effect: the process of turning young boys into robots has a sadistic, pounding compulsiveness. The moviemaking suggests a blunt instrument grinding into your skull. This can easily be taken for the work of a master director.

At the beginning, Kubrick’s photographic style is oppressively close in; he holds the camera so tight on the actors’ faces that he doesn’t give them room to act. When the recruits’ heads are shaved, they’re shot like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, only no emotions are being expressed—that’s a big “only”—and so there’s no beauty in the imagery. The boys are under a microscope. When the sergeant tells them that they’re “maggots” and all “equally worthless,” there’s nothing in Kubrick’s approach to suggest anything different.

The lean, mechanical-man sergeant has a pet victim: a slow, overweight recruit whom he calls Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). The sergeant degrades him mercilessly, and pits the other men against him by penalizing the whole platoon for Pyle’s failures. And Kubrick concentrates our attention on poor, doughy-faced Pyle; he’s a fatty, like Dim the droog in A Clockwork Orange. (D’Onofrio had to put on sixty pounds to get the role.) But Kubrick isn’t a psychological director; he doesn’t seem to care anything about motivations. And so Pyle, whom Kubrick uses to demonstrate that the system for turning kids into killers can spin out of control, is no more than a comic horror, like a sad, fat crazy in an exploitation film.

In the novel, when Joker, who has tried to help the slow learner Pyle, joins the rest of the platoon in beating him while he yelps and moans, a scary-sick, ambivalence gets its grip on the reader, and all the action in Nam that follows intensifies that ambivalence. The Joker of the book is like a living Catch-22: he’s telling the story (it’s a first-person narrative), and when he discovers that the war is turning him into a vicious racist killer we’re right there inside him, as baffled by his emotions as he is, yet never doubting them. He has been brainwashed, like the others, and he becomes part of the fighting machine that the sergeant has built. In the movie, Joker joins in the beating but nothing in the second section seems to follow from it. And although the subsequent material is episodic—almost random—as it follows Joker, who eventually finds someone he knows from boot camp, we don’t see through his eyes. Angular and sharp-featured, he’s remote, spectral—he’s supposed to be smart, but he, too, seems dim.

After the first part reaches climax, the movie becomes dispersed, as if it had no story. It never regains its forward drive; the second part is almost a different picture, and you can’t get an emotional reading on it. Joker serves as a combat correspondent with the 1st Marine Division, and is assigned to write upbeat, “public relations” stories about the American soldiers’ kindness to the natives, and to invent anecdotes that show we’re winning the war. When he meets up with his buddy from Parris Island, he goes out on a patrol with him. They’re part of a squad that sticks together during the Battle of Hue, the final round of the Tet offensive, in 1968. But when a sniper picks the men off, shooting them limb by limb, like a gourmand saving the tenderest bits for last, and we hear the men’s cries, we can barely remember who they are. And we don’t know why we’re following Joker. His streak of humor seems ornamental—a curlicue, like the Peace button he wears on his uniform (to contrast with “Born to Kill,” which he has painted on his helmet).

A Vietnamese hooker flips up her miniskirt, the better to show off her bottom for a marine’s camera. That’s the only suggestion of spontaneity in the film. Kubrick has become a hermetic, deliberate director, who painstakingly records scenes over and over again until he achieves—what? It can’t be performances he’s after. He shows so little interest in the actors that they come across as the dullest cast he’s ever worked with. Only the sergeant and Pyle leave any visual recall, and that’s not because of their performances—it’s their physiques, their faces. A sequence in which the men in the squad encounter a television crew and are asked to talk about what they’re fighting for is flabby, because Kubrick doesn’t discover anything in them to reveal. And it can’t be the atmosphere—the feel of the place—that he’s after. He began as a photographer shooting pictures for Look, but now he lives near London, and he didn’t go to Southeast Asia or the Philippines—Asia was brought to him. (The movie was shot in England.) So our vision of the war is changed. We don’t get the image of a handful of black and white intruders in a land of Asians; it’s a handful of Asians who are the intruders. There they are in the rubble of Hue under gray, lowering English skies, with some imported palm trees in the distance. Even when the marines are being trained it’s disorienting to hear someone refer to the Island, because we have no sense that the men we’re watching are on an island, or anywhere in particular. Yet it isn’t so much the English locations that are the problem—it’s the spirit behind using them.

It must be ideas that Kubrick is trying to get at. The screenplay, by Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Hasford, has attitudinizing speeches—the kind that sound false no matter how true they are. When a marine talks about how “we’re killing fine human beings,” his language is inert. Generally, the men talk in a profane military slang that can’t always be deciphered but makes its point: that clean English can’t express how they feel. The themes are familiar. The sergeant’s boast that before basic training is over, the men will be able to shoot as well as Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald, who learned their marksmanship in the Marines, is in the novel, but in the movie it becomes a Dr. Strangelove joke. And the whole theme of the reprogramming of human material recalls Clockwork Orange—except that there it was from sociopathic to social, and here it’s the reverse. But somehow the book’s overriding idea—how these brainwashed men were destroyed from within—gets lost. This war was more intensely confusing than earlier wars (in which marines were also trained to be a fighting machine). Second World War books and movies seem reasonable compared with the psychedelic, acid-rock horror that you find in accounts of Vietnam, where the emotions of combat are heightened by a druggy poetics of guilt. The Joker of Hasford’s book hated the helplessness of an old Vietnamese farmer the way he hated the infantile, blubbering Pyle. He was shooting at his own helplessness. It was his fierce revulsion that made him do horrible things; some part of him protested against being turned into a killer.

In the movie, Kubrick doesn’t allow his “hero” to do those horrible things. So we don’t get a sense of his inner conflict. Joker just seems a detached sort of wise guy, with a superior manner; perhaps his mocking attitude is supposed to help the hip young audience identify with him. He doesn’t really connect with anything. And the Peace symbol he wears isn’t a sign of the protest he can’t quite acknowledge; it’s explained as a symbol of the Jungian duality of man. What is emotional in the book is made abstract. The movie has no center, because Kubrick has turned this hero into a replica of himself: his Joker is always at a distance—he doesn’t express his feelings. So the movie comes across as not meaning anything. But it has a tone that’s peculiar to Kubrick. His cold-sober approach— the absence of anything intuitive or instinctive or caught on the wing—can make you think there’s deep, heavy anti-war stuff here. The gist of the movie, though, seems to be not that war makes men into killers but that the Marine Corps does. (In 2001, we were told that it was enough to be a man to be a killer.) Here’s a director who has been insulated from American life for more than two decades, and he proceeds to define the American crisis of the century. He does it by lingering for a near-pornographic eternity over a young Vietnamese woman who is in pain and pleads “Shoot me! Shoot me!” This is James M. Cain in Vietnam.

It’s very likely that Kubrick has become so wrapped up in his “craft”—which is often called his “genius”—that he doesn’t recognize he’s cut off not only from America and the effects the war had on it but from any sort of connection to people. (The only memorable character in his films of the past twenty years is Hal the computer.) What happened to the Kubrick who used to slip in sly, subtle jokes and little editing tricks? This may be his worst movie. He probably believes he’s numbing us by the power of his vision, but he’s actually numbing us by its emptiness. Like a star child, Kubrick floats above the characters of Full Metal Jacket, the story, the audience. Moviemaking carried to a technical extreme—to the reach for supreme control of his material—seems to have turned Kubrick into a machine.

The New Yorker, July 13 1987 – pp. 75-76


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