Ah, the smell of Kubrick in the early morning
With all the violence from Hollywood, especially the full gamut of military films, there have been quite a few meditations on the meaning of war, and plenty of those films that try to package violence as some self-aggrandizing hero worship machine.
As an example of the latter, take my recent review of Pearl Harbor. A little hero-worship isn't inherently a bad thing, but they go so far to create the heros with whatever qualities they want in that film, that their believability is too far out of whack, and the story itself barely has that much to do with war anyway. It's a failure because of a staggering desire for infallibility - an odd perspective for a film supposedly covering the ignominious defeat for the Americans at Pearl Harbor.
Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket belongs among in the meditations on war category. It's everything that Pearl Harbor is not. As I type this, I consider that even making the comparison may somehow taint of Full Metal Jacket. At least I'm not bringing up In The Army Now with Pauly Shore.
We begin following a group of new enlistees through training camp under Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey in his first prominent role). The process of turning these men into fighting machines is a grueling and impersonal journey. One of the recruits, dubbed Private Pyle for Gomer Pyle - played by a young, incredible Vincent D'Onofrio - is pushed and humiliated beyond his own personal limits. Watching him is a bit like the proverbial train wreck. He's trying, but no matter how hard, he seems somehow doomed anyway.
With the boot camp over, the movie enters a new phase in Vietnam. Although we've had bits of narration before now, there was little notion of a protagonist in the nameless group of soldiers. After the men are doled out to various units, one such protagonist forms, at least briefly, in Private Joker - another dubbed name - who is sent in as part of the military's official press service. He spends his initial time in Vietnam getting familiar with the spin of military propaganda, but eventually is sent to document an actual mission, where he runs into some of his boot camp troop. The film culminates in a sequence where this unit is stuck trying to find a way to help a fallen comrade out in the open, but thwarted by a single well-hidden sniper. The people of the unit clash over whether they can save him or if it's all just a trap to lure them into the open.
I see Full Metal Jacket as an exploration of how principles start to fall by the wayside, even in well meaning people. In the military, where the stakes are so high and people are often not free to make their own decisions, those little day to day sacrifices people make loom large while those involved pass it off as casual necessity. One can argue whether Full Metal Jacket was written from a particular viewpoint, but the film leaves us to reach our own conclusions. Answers are not easy on an individual level here, and that's why it's interesting to watch.
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