To be honest, you get two films for the price of one with Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a haunting and unflinching look at the Vietnam conflict. I would say you get two sides of the war, and in a sense you do, but both sides exist within a very military mentality. There is no anti-war faction, or outwardly anti war message attached to the events that unfold. There is the torturous hell of boot camp, complete with its own climax, followed by the torturous hell of the conflict in Southeast Asia. Both storylines are starkly objective, like many Kubrick films, and neither of the narratives takes an outward stance on the conflict itself. But you can see, first through mental damage and later through physical damage, that there is an opinion there. Full Metal Jacket is an unconventional look at a war that has been done to the point of exhaustion in cinema, but thanks to Kubrick’s vision we are given something fresh and startling and engrossing. Thanks in no small part to the introduction of Private Pyle.
Pyle’s real name is Leonard, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, but his real name is no longer relevant once he enters into basic training with a platoon of scared kids. Leonard is weak, stupid, overweight, a screw up, and so the gunnery sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey in the role that made him famous) nicknames him Private Pyle as an insult. Gunnery sergeant Hartman, as a matter of fact, is quite clever with his insults, delivering endless tirades of creative insults to all of the men in the company. It takes some time for any of the other nondescript members of the platoon to separate from the extras, that is except for D’Onofrio, whose constant mistakes draw the ire of the rest of the company. This leads to an unsettling assault with towels and bars of soap one night.
Private Pyle’s closest friend in the company is Private Joker, played by Matthew Modine. Joker wants Pyle to make it through this, but despite his best efforts the constant brow beating and mental torture of camp and of Hartman ultimately becomes too much for Pyle to take. We find out that Pyle is an excellent marksman, but the revelation comes too late. Pyle’s eyes have lost all humanity, and his vacant gaze suggests that Pyle knows what is to come. This entire opening story exists in a self-contained narrative, and exists to show the dehumanizing of the military. There are constant reminders that these kids have been molded to all be like one another – including but not limited to the opening sequence where they are all getting their heads shaved – so when one of the young men buckles the way Pyle does, the way in which he breaks free of the lemming-like mentality feels like the only way he can escape. You could see the showdown coming between these two men from the beginning, but the way in which their final confrontation is filmed works almost like a nightmare in Private Joker’s head as he watches in horror.
And just like that, the film shifts into an entirely new story with new characters. Our only thread that ties these two stories together is Private Joker, now working in Vietnam as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes. The subject at hand is the Tet Offensive. This second half of Full Metal Jacket takes on an entirely different tone. The first half was almost a dream sequence that slowly turned into a horrible nightmare. This second half is much more conventional, and it shows the way in which boot camp has flattened these men into drones. Once this new set of men, save for Joker, is thrown into conflict, eventually trapped for an extended time by a sniper in a dilapidated city, their actions and their dialogue feels stiff, cliché, standard. These men have no souls that differentiate them from the man next to them anymore.
And so this is the ultimate message of Full Metal Jacket, that war is not only hell, it ruins people. So many of the young men and women in this country have been dehumanized by training and war and death, sometimes there is but one escape. Kubrick’s film, like most of his pictures, is a self-contained work. It looks and feels different from a war film shot on location, and I know Kubrick intended it this way. The result is a film that is acutely withdrawn and deliberately cold, adding to the haunting and detached atmosphere of the picture. Although you get two films for one admission with Full Metal Jacket, there is no change in the monotonous tone and overwhelming sense of dread and cold lack of humanity that permeates each and every scene.