Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Film #39: Full Metal Jacket
Maybe it's bizarre to start this review off with such an observation, but the problem with Oliver Stone's pre-emptive achievement with 1986's Platoon lay in that it, in effect, was Stone's (but perhaps not Hollywood's) simple way of glitzing over the true state of affairs during the Vietnam conflict, all in the name of good, clean, All-American storytelling. Stone's musculature was admirable; he'd finally brought out the fact that, deep down (for its fighters, at least), 'Nam was a war--not a cause for the generals or the protesters--but a bonafide war. That, in itself, was a telegram that required delivery.
But Platoon's downfall was thinly hidden within its maker's naive notion that warriors could be categorized into two broad subsets: the good and the bad. He oversimplified the matter, transforming the Vietnamese jungles into mere substitutes for the rolling plains of John Ford's Monument Valley, where the dirty virtuous fought--not always successfully--for victory over the supposed sinful. (Actually the film's not even as good as the typical John Ford western--it's more like a good b-film.) But that's not the end of Platoon's faults. Stone also made no attempt to address any of the real moral issues that inevitably surface in a war-time situation. He just showed the Vietnam jumble as how it's easiest to recall--as an updated, twisted rehash of Hollywood's Big One, WWII. There's the good sargeant (Willem Dafoe) and the bad sargeant (Tom Berenger, in embarrassingly ridiculous scar makeup). Now, to which one is our hero (Charlie Sheen) going to be loyal? Anyone who couldn't guess how this was all going to turn out was sound asleep.
That's why it's criminal Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket was released at a time in which it'd inevitably be compared to Stone's parable. For people who thought that 1986's Best Picture winner Platoon fully defined the Vietnam conflict, Kubrick's 1987 should have come as a harder, heart-stiffening jolt. It's nothing like Platoon; in fact, it's its antithesis. Platoon featured a group of men (including Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon and Forrest Whittaker) whose enemy was discernable--they were all just a bunch of camouflaged gooks lurking in a few horizon-line bushes.
But, in Full Metal Jacket it often turns out that, in a militaristic environment where a soldier's life is threatened by the second, the enemy is very much within the predator as it is the prey. And whereas Stone preached the possibility of a black-and-white existence, Kubrick combats that with the view that the world and this relatively short-lived (but representative) situation is charcoal-colored. In this great director's purview, all death--Vietcong and American, hero and villain--is gory. As our hero, Private Joker (an extraordinary Matthew Modine) narrates while standing over a mass grave: "The dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive."
It is for this reason that Full Metal Jacket is the definitive Vietnam film. Very few filmmakers have even attempted to revisit it since its release in 1987, which should tell you something. Like the war itself, Kubrick's film has a rather "traditionally" unsatisfying ending, as it fails to provide audiences with pithy "don't let this happen again" axioms. And unlike the typical American vision of the war, Full Metal Jacket has sympathy and respect for ALL its characters, even those who didn't get a noble chance to fight. It finally, frankly realizes the utter madness that comes not only with combat itself, but with all things associated.
Based on Gustav Hasford's equally terse short novel The Short-Timers, Full Metal Jacket sports a completely gripping first third. In it, we're introduced to the freshly-shaved heads belonging to a new group of recruits, led by a tack-spitting D.I. named Sgt. Hartman (energetically played by real-life drill instructor R. Lee Ermey). It's Hartman's opinion that every man who enters the corps is destined only to be an emotionless, remorseless killing machine that's at no man's mercy. Throughout Ermey's thirty minutes of monologue time, we find his aim is to drive this notion home to his charges--even to those hardily resistant ones. Referring to all grunts by names he personally hands them (thereby reducing them to newborns), Hartman runs roughshod over sarcastic Private Joker, pipsqueak Texan Private Cowboy (Arliss Howard, in an overloooked performance), black Private Snowball (Peter Edmund) and a sloppily overweight bumbler deemed Private "Gomer Pyle" (Vincent D'Onofrio, in another of the film's acting standouts). Sgt. Hartman puts these men and more through a meat grinder of transformation: they become dull organs in a massive olive-drab death machine.
The kink in that Hartman eventually does his whipping job too well. The one man he's hardest on--the one that proves to be more gristle than apparent fat (Private Pyle)--is goaded too far into the game. He becomes, with the insolent help of his unsympathetic peers, one of the sharpest walking ironies that Kubrick and company ever concocted. Pyle इस the essence of what the Marines require of each of its enlistees: cold, concrete malice. But Pyle also personifies fully-armed insanity, the one condition that can do the military more harm than good. (Kubrick injects a bit of typical black comedy when he has Hartman holding such military-trained psychopaths as Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald up to his students as heroes to be emulated faithfully.)
After this gut-wrenching prologue to the real war (as if it hadn't already started), Kubrick's camera, to the appropriate tune of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Were Made For Walking," then turns to the battle-shredded streets of Vietnam, where Private Joker, along with his enthusiastic photographer Rafterman (Kevin Major Howard), is stationed as a reporter for Stars and Stripes, the military's in-barracks newspaper. After a few skermishes with the VC, Joker and Rafterman, both longing to get into the fight, are sent to the bullet-ridden streets of Hue City where the VC are trying to gain a foothold before the Tet offensive. There Joker is reunited with boot camp mate Cowboy, who is now third in command in a platoon that includes characters like leader Mr. Touchdown (Ed O'Ross), Eightball (Dorian Harewood), a vulgar and morbid hick called Crazy Earl ("You just don't lead 'em so much"--an memorably unfeeling line delivered by Kieron Jecchins), and a pitifully brutal grunt aptly named Animal Mother (yet another splendid performance, by Adam Baldwin).
All of this leads up to the second half of Kubrick's one-two punch (this is the very rare movie you'll see that doesn't have a third act--a courageous choice), in which the platoon led by Cowboy is having its members slowly picked off by an unseen sniper. The viewer, identifying with the extra-personable Cowboy, is confronted on all sides with such nerve-knotting stress that s/he hardly knows which way to turn: the company is miles away from its destination; the sniper is blocking a needed passageway; no assistance is coming; the enemy must be found, but can't be; two men are hurt but still alive; and what's left of the platoon is wasting its ammo on futile attempts at retaliation. The future, like the Vietnam sky, looks blighted and bleak. In this ultra-realistic, fatalistic finale Full Metal Jacket becomes almost unwatchable--which is, of course, Kubrick's goal.
If comparisons must be made to the director's past works, then this movie most closely resembles A Clockwork Orange more than its on-the-surface cousin Paths of Glory. Like the popular cyberpunk cult classic, Full Metal Jacket primarily deals with, in Private Joker's Nietzschian-appropriated words, "the duality of man"--the very fact that peace and violence coexists in all men (the famous graphic from the film's poster is the helmet worn by Joker that displays both a peace symbol and the painted-on boast "Born to Kill"). In A Clockwork Orange, one feels sorry for Alex (Malcolm McDowall) when he's driven to suicide by an enemy, even though earlier we sympathized with the enemy himself as Alex victimized he and his wife. In the same way, we feel hatred for towards the "Viet Cong" when they obstensibly mow down members of Cowboy's squad, but we also feel sickened at the film's end, or previously when joyous helicopter gunner Crazy Earl undiscerningly exterminates Vietnamese farmers as his chopper hovers over the innocent and the guilty as they run scared through an endless field of grain.
All of Kubrick's usual elements are certainly present in Full Metal Jacket: the fully-contorted, mask-like faces of the actors; the omnicient narration, delivered without feeling; the carefully chosen music (it's the first Kubrick film since Dr. Strangelove that doesn't contain any classical pieces--all of the original music is written by Abigail Mead, a thinly-veiled psuedonym for his daughter, Vivian Kubrick); the sumptuous, documentary like camerawork by Douglas Milsome (without which subsequent great war films like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down would not've been possible); the scarily accurate art direction, all erected not in the Phillipines, like Platoon, but controvercially in merry old England by the late art director extraordinaire Anton Furst, later an Oscar-winner for his famous work on Tim Burton's Batman; the punny word play (Private Pyle, wrongfully sitting on a commode in the middle of the night while loading his M-14 is warned by Joker that, if their D.I. catches them, they'll be "in a world of shit," after which Pyle searingly exclaims amidst tens of toilets "I AM in a world of shit"); the extremely accurate writing by Kubrick, Hasford, and Dispatches / Apocalypse Now writer Michael Herr (who later composed the revealing, loving 2000 memoir Kubrick); the inventive setting (I love that the film takes place largely in a city, and not in the jungles as in most every other Vietnam movie); and a characteristically strange climactic mix of optimism and pessimism.
It's one trademark alone, though, that makes Full Metal Jacket essential viewing for anyone who even has a passing like for movies: Stanley Kubrick himself. Once again, in 1987, twelve years before his last movie Eyes Wide Shut, he proved himself the genius the filmmaking world always knew him to be. Bravo to a man who, until recently, may I say, was verily walking godlike upon the earth.