Saturday, 25 February 2017

Full Metal Jacket Review

Number 106 on the top 1000 films of all time is Stanley Kubrick's simple yet powerful Full Metal Jacket.

I've seen detractors of the film say that it is a film of two halves with little narrative in either.  I beg to differ.  I think it is this exact lack of narrative that makes the film so compelling.  Take, for example, Apocalypse Now, which is also about the Vietnam War.  Whilst Apocalypse Now is a great film, I did feel that as the narrative become more complicated that the focus on the characters progressively declined.  However, the stripped-back narrative of Full Metal jacket allowed the audience to see the psychological trauma that Vietnam Soldiers experienced in brutal, unflinching honesty.

The first half focuses on Privates James T. "Joker" Davis, (Matthew Modine,) Leonard "Pyle" Lawrence (Vincent D'onofrio) and Robert "Cowboy" Evans (Arliss Howard) as they navigate the gruelling Marine bootcamp.  Lee Erney puts in a terrifying, yet hilarious performance as the psychotic Drill Sergeant Hartman.  He chastises the recruits with the utmost of ridiculous of insults and takes a particular dislike to the overweight, dim-witted Private Pyle, whom he starts bullying.  It is difficult not to pity Pyle, who is obviously not fit for the Marines, no matter how hard he tries to succeed.  D'onofrio did well to make him pathetic, but endearing.  In one particular scene, Pyle is beaten by the other private, after they are all punished for Pyle's mistake.  His howls of pain and confusion were tragic to watch.

Pyle's transformation was also interesting to watch.  With a lot of help from Joker, we see Pyle begin to improve, which even Sergeant Hartman acknowledges.  In this half, Joker is more of a passive character, who witness how Pyle is psychologically broken, but also how he begins fixing himself.  Yet, we also see, through Joker's eyes, that Pyle's mental state is still very fragile, and he isn't far from snapping.  I feel that this is painfully true to real life, as not everybody would be able to withstand the psychological and physical strains of bootcamp.  I sure as hell wouldn't.  Just as all of the recruits graduate and it looks like Pyle has succeeded, he shoots Hartman and then commits suicide, all in full view of Joker.  This as a tragic end to a tragic character, but it also felt appropriate.  Pyle would have never lasted in Vietnam and it was a suitable, if distressing end, for his character.

Although the first half focuses on Pyle, it did well to show the effect this was having on Joker.  it obvious that he really cares about Pyle and wants him to improve.  He does beat Pyle with the other cadets, something which greatly disturbs him, as does Pyle's suicide.  This accentuated the camaraderie that all soldiers experienced, which was borne out of their collective suffering.

The location of the bootcamp was also done well, making it seem that the soldiers were being brainwashed to become nothing more than killing machines.  They are made to have the same haircut, the same clothes and made to recite the Rifleman's creed in unison.  The fact that the soldiers are portrayed as robots, makes it even more important that the narrative focuses on the very human story of Private Pyle.

The second half of the film takes place one year later, where Joker is now working in Vietnam, as a journalist, to write pro U.S propaganda.  The Vietnam war was not a popular one and the government needed everything they had to convince the public otherwise.  Joker, unsatisfied at being stuck behind the lines, is sent to the front with photographer Rafton.  I've seen other reviewers say that any narrative falls apart in this half, but I would disagree.  Whilst there might not be a traditional Voyage and Discovery or Overcoming the Monster narrative, what we receive is an intense character on soldiers in the Vietnam War.  The narrative lies in how each character reacts to the horrors that they experience.

We see many of these horrors through Joker's eyes, including a gunner indiscriminately shooting Vietnamese civillians, to dead Vietnamese dressed up as a soldiers and put on display.  I even read on IMDB that there was a deleted scene, which saw U.S soldiers playing football with a human head.  Joker and Rafton are sent to join the Lusthog Squad, where Cowboy is now a sergeant.  During a routine patrol, the squad's commanding officer is killed and two more men are wounded by a sniper, leaving Cowboy as the uneasy leader.  As well as Joer and Rafton, Cowboy also commands Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin.) Out of all the soldiers, Animal Mother is the most damaged, firmly believing that you have to fight to survive. Baldwin gave a great performance, portraying Animal, as deeply traumatised.  Whilst Cowboy is dithering over a plan, Animal leads a one-man assault to rescue his fallen comrades and to kill the enemy sniper, inspiring the rest of the squad to follow him.  The fallen soldiers die, as does Cowboy, leaving Animal to assume control.

Animal Mother leads the assault on the sniper's hiding place.  However, it is Joker that discovers the sniper is a 12 year old Vietnamese girl.  This emphasised the unflinching horror of a war that was so bad, it inspired children to fight.  Going to shoot him, Joker's gun jams and instead the girl fires on him.  Joker is only saved by Rafton gunning the girl down, although I found it a bit implausible that the girl missed Joker.  As the rest of the squad rendezvous, Joker requests that a mercy killing is performed on the dying girl.  The staunch Animal, who is content to let her bleed, says that Joker must perform it, which he does.  This kill marks Joker's first and leaves him with the 1000-yard stares, and also the first signs of his psyche deteriorating.  This brutal scene demonstrates just had damaged these men are, especially Animal Mother.  The film ends with the squad returning back to their base singing the "Mickey Mouse March."

You could certainly argue that this is a film of two halves, with two separate narratives, and little overlap between the two.  I did find it a little weird that Joker never spoke of Pyle, despite the effect he had on his life.  Yet nonetheless, Full Metal Jacket brilliantly demonstrated the dehumanising effect that war can have on soldiers.  After I finished watching it, I was lost for words, a feeling I've not experienced, since I watched Requiem for a Dream.  Although this film focusses on the Vietnam War, its timeless appeal means that it could apply to any of the wars that ravage today's society.

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