Kubrick's grim satire of the war system’s major malfunction.
DIRECTED BY STANLEY KUBRICK
Stanley Kubrick made films in movements. Whether in the symphonically shaped 2001: A Space Odyssey, which spans human history, or in Eyes Wide Shut, structured as a couple’s dreamy dance around a pair of truly awful parties, his films don’t develop in the traditional linear sense. Instead, they build through discrete phases. One watches them with the kind of faith in the artist’s grand conception that’s usually reserved for classical music.
Full Metal Jacket’s best realized movement is its first, a 45-minute boot-camp training montage. Working from Gustav Hasford’s 1979 anti-Vietnam novel The Short-Timers, Kubrick follows the pragmatic Joker (Matthew Modine) and simple Leonard (Vincent D’Onofrio) through basic training as they’re hectored and moulded by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (a charismatic R. Lee Ermey). Joker turns out to be the narrator, but so strong is the opening that Leonard—whom Hartman snidely rechristens “Gomer Pyle”—becomes the key to the movie. The meticulous way he’s broken down from a gentle idiot into a quivering sack of flesh, then rebuilt into a model soldier (that is to say, a mad one) serves as a microcosm of the film’s criticism of the war system as a meat grinder that takes in humans and pushes out waste.
Kubrick developed a reputation for being frosty and self-indulgent, a scold prone to calling Stephen King late at night during the making of The Shining to ask whether he believed in God. It’s easy to forget how funny his films can be. Full Metal Jacket’s first third is a hilarious satire of how the military disciplines unruly bodies and weird brains in antiseptic rooms lit by fluorescent lights. Amusing as Hartman’s regimen is, it’s gallows humour, the comedy derived from how military cleanliness is always one little push away from the grotesque and the insane. It may not be a laugh riot, but it’s good for a cynical grin.