Somehow after the decadence of Barry Lyndon and a philosophical look at horror in The Shining, Stanley Kubrick settled into a film of unrestrained vitriol and aggression, and—once again proving his genius as a cinematic storyteller—made it intellectual and appealing. Full Metal Jacket states its primary concern fairly loud: Private Joker (Matthew Modine) is grilled for wearing a peace pin on his combat uniform while having “Born to Kill” scrawled across his helmet. He responds that it is a comment on the duality of man, warring and peaceable—or, in this case, the Marine-brand, courageous, thoughtless, instinctual killer, the human beneath it, and the difficulties if not the futility of one suppressing the other.
The film reflects this two-sided dilemma with a two-part story. Joker’s hellacious Marine Corps training drives his fellow recruit Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) to insanity. In-country, Joker faces the Tet offensive as a military journalist, then brings his photographer, Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), along as he reunites with fellow basic training survivor Cowboy (Arliss Howard), meets the action-movie version of a Vietnam fighter in Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), and gets into the shit. The dialogue in both sections is a constant clash between the inflating, propagandistic, and sickly comic language of professional soldiering (aided by the immensely foul-mouthed drill sergeant Hartman, played by former Marine sergeant R. Lee Ermey) and Joker’s more self-preserving enterprises, first as the tutor of the inept Pyle and then as the journalist reluctantly covering the military perspective of the war and just as reluctant to get into the fighting when it comes; “I’m not ready for this shit,” he says, as the first bombs begin exploding around him during the Tet offensive. Joker himself is a two-part character. He is never truly the vicious fighter the Marines want him to be, but he is every bit as detestable and capable of violence as his more unthinking counterparts. Modine brings an underlying iciness to the engaging Joker that complements the back-and-forth, and while Joker and especially Rafterman are positioned as outsiders once the war begins, it takes a nearly fatal mistake in the film’s final standoff for one to celebrate and the other to appreciate the magnitude of the cruelty in which they have engaged since joining the Marines. Joker ends the film a killer, but the conflict still exists: his kill is as humane as it is vengeful.
Kubrick’s particularly effective stroke was to purposefully ignore the politics of Vietnam and keep both sides of this generalized central conflict right in your face. The photography puts the audience over the shoulders of fighting soldiers, as well as in the immediate line of fire. Characters are constantly speaking into the camera, both within the story—as when Hartman points into the camera and shouts abuse as much to the viewer as to Joker—and with a nod to the filmmaking process that over the years has stamped its imprimatur on the same nationalistic-language-as-training-tool that has Joker laughing and making jokes as he gives a mid-war interview to a camera crew in front of a burned out house. “I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill,” he says, smiling. The explosions in the wartime half of the film are sudden and indirect, from booby traps and sniper fire. In the safety of an American training depot, the personal danger is ever-present and relentless as the recruits are “born again hard.” The two figures in the film who best fit that catchy phrase are, not coincidentally, also the two genuinely insane and deadly characters—and they’re both American: Pyle and the helicopter gunner who fires at any Vietnamese person standing beneath his chopper. Kubrick works expressly on this level of the individual and unspecialized grunt to create a film that is less a defense or criticism of war than a strike at the mythologies of war-making. In its constant and irreversible violence, Full Metal Jacket, one of Kubrick’s grittiest works, is also one of his most resonant.