Full Metal Jacket
I first saw the film Full Metal Jacket about a year ago. The movie is sort of a lot to take in, so I was grateful for a second pass.
First of all, I’d like to say I am so grateful for anyone who serves in the military. I couldn’t imagine making the kind of sacrifice you do. Pointing this out up front is sort of necessary, because this film casts a dark shadow on the way our country wages war.
There is a sharp crease in the middle of the movie - almost like folding a thick piece of paper in half. The first half of the film is pure American fun. The film opens with bushy-tailed marine recruits standing in flawless formation within crisp, clean barracks. Though the drill sergeant is cruel, you can’t help but laugh at some of the insults he comes up with. You get a sense of the harshness of boot camp, but without a departure from good ‘ol American fun.
The film focuses on a tubby, weak-willed recruit referred to as ‘Private Pile’ (as in, ‘pile of sh**’). He is eager to better himself, but repeatedly falls victim to physical limitations and jelly donuts hidden in his foot locker. But just as you would anticipate a feel-good rally, the film diverges from this American dream. Private Pile loses his mind, and he takes the life of his drill Sergeant as well as his own.
This is where the other end of the crease starts. The rest of the film follows a snarky military journalist through a bizarre string of personal exhibitions and harsh combat. The film ends with a salty platoon of marines chasing a lone Viet Cong sniper through the burning refuse of a Vietnamese city, ultimately ending with the mercy killing of the sniper - a little girl all along.
The movie is a serious critique of the American military. I interpreted the movie as a contrast of cheery Americana perspective folded over the dark reality of war.
Through a comparison of Private Pile with Private Joker, Kubrick makes a poignant statement. It’s almost as if he is saying ‘If someone were to really take our country’s propaganda seriously, this is what they would have to be - a killing machine.’ Meanwhile, Kubrick expresses through Private Joker that the only way this works is if the soldiers enforce their own duality - playing along with the hollering and singing while treasuring their own cynicism and doubt. Private Joker even mentions this duality when an officer questions his ‘Born to Kill’ inscription mere inches away from a peace sign pin on his uniform.
So movie that begins with breast-beating patriotism ends with the mercy killing of a child soldier - clearly progressing in the order of most-American to least.
What do we do with this cynicism? Are we to do away with our military all together? This should not be the case, but we should certainly be open to questioning our country’s view of itself. Just as Private joker joked, we should always we conscious of the duality of our American identity. In one hand, we are proud, loud Americans that have no fear. In the other, we are thinking, reasoning citizens of the world that are deeply aware that nothing is as it seems.
If we fail to use our duality, we will find ourselves marching to the beat of our own propaganda in the most absurd of circumstances, like the closing scene of the film where the last of the platoon march through the flames chanting the words to the Mickey Mouse theme.
Blimey - I need to cheer up. I think I need to hit the Seinfeld reruns.
Silly at first, crushing to the very end. All I know is that I wouldn’t make it five minutes in the military.
Alex and I continued our Stanley Kubrick marathon tonight with the war story classic Full Metal Jacket. After watching another Kubrick film, I am extremely impressed with his ability to make seemingly superficial movies contain a much deeper story. Full Metal Jacket starts out with a number of boys heading to training camp for the marines and it follows them through the struggles of preparing for the Vietnam War. Eventually the story follows them to Vietnam and into combat.
When the boys are at training camp there are two privates in particular that the story emphasizes, a skinny smart-talker named the Joker, and a bigger quieter soldier named Private Pile. Private Pile constantly struggles to accomplish most of the tasks that the demanding general asks of him. Joker then does his best to help Private Pile catch up but his efforts are in vain. As the days go by we start to see Private Pile almost drift off more and more off of the training island and into his own little world. (WARNING: spoiler alert….) Eventually his brush with insanity leads him to shooting his general and then shooting himself. The story then almost immediately switches to a setting in Vietnam. But in the final scene of the film (another spoiler alert here) the Joker ends up shooting a vietnamese sniper (who had just killed three of his friends) as she is begging to be shot, wounded on the ground.
Acknowledging Kubricks’ intention of having some pretty deep lessons in his films, I began thinking about what may have been hidden in Full Metal Jacket. The first thing that struck my mind as a bit odd was the seemingly random story of the general and Private Pile. After the scene where they both die we don’t hear any reference to them again. It seemed odd considering that probably half of the story’s development revolved around these two characters and their tension with one another. I then began to think about the amount of sympathy I had after watching Private Pile spiral into his slightly insane state. Even though I obviously did not agree with the decisions he made, I pitied him since he had struggled to fit in and succeed. I then identified that I had not had a similar feeling during all of the line of fire shots in vietnam later in the film. So why did I feel worse when two people died than when many people had died in war in the movie? I think that it’s because I felt like the story had provided a sufficient background around Private Pile that made me understand how he got to the point where he did. This then made me feel empathetic towards him. I once heard someone say that if two people die it’s murder but if a thousand people die it’s just a statistic. I can see what this saying is getting at. It is hard to relate to someone you have never seen, met, or even know their name. So back to Kubricks’ intent. I think that he was trying to play on this common understanding by creating some ironic relatability. By feeling sad when Private Pile and the general died in the beginning, shouldn’t we feel just as bad, or worse, when an event where thousands of people have died? I personally think that this is a good idea for anyone to sit on for a bit, including myself. Even though it is hard to relate to events that happen thousands of miles away, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care.
Overall I did enjoy this film and would rate it a solid 7/10 for it’s interesting setting change and it’s ability to blend together a story of a boy in training camp with a story of his friends fighting in the Vietnam war.
This movie is yet another beautiful Kubrick film, intertwining deep messages into a seemingly superficial war story.