'80s Movie Month: "Full Metal Jacket" Review

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The U.S.-Vietnam War's dehumanizing effects are observed by a pragmatic U.S. Marine has on his fellow recruits from their brutal boot camp training to the bloody street fighting in Hue.
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'80s Movie Month: "Full Metal Jacket" Review

Rating: R (violence, profanity)
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: June 26, 1987
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Genre: Drama/War

At the start of "Full Metal Jacket," humanist J.T. Davis (Matthew Modine), who would later be known as Pvt. Joker, is at Parris Island for basic training in the Marine Corps. He knows full well, as does everyone else, that he is about to go through a rigorous training regiment and then be promptly shipped off to Vietnam. The thought of war is never far from the recruits' minds, but first they have to survive training.

Gunnery Sgt. Harman (R. Lee Ermey) has been assigned to Joker's barracks, where he shares quarters with the likes of Pvt. Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio), who is overweight and ridiculed—often being referred to as Gomer Pyle. Joker seems to take pity on him, but he still occasionally terrorizes him in order to remain part of the group. Leonard tries to become a model Marine until he one day snaps and takes his own life. The horrors of war have begun for the recruits despite the fact that they are still half a world away from the battlefield.

After the recruits graduate from training, the film shifts from South Carolina to Vietnam, where Joker has become a correspondent whose job it is to whitewash the war and make it seem less horrific than it really is. Although he spends half his time in meetings or in front of a typewriter, he is slowly losing his humanist sensibilities. He has written "Born to Kill" on his helmet yet still wears a peace sign on his uniform, two very conflicting messages. The story unfolds as he and his fellow Marines decide which of those messages is more powerful and which one will take over their soul. It's an unflinching look at the psychological hazards of battle, which are often just as bad, if not worse, than the physical toll.

"Full Metal Jacket" came out after Oliver Stone's "Platoon," which had just won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1986. Both movies were centered on military men who served in Vietnam, and both were considered to be fairly dark films that didn't glorify war in the same way that many previous war-themed films had. That is where the similarities end, however, as these are two very different films. "Platoon" tells a fairly linear story with an intense focus, whereas "Full Metal Jacket" is a film told in two different parts. The first part involves the training of the new recruits, showing them surviving basic training and learning how to be a cohesive unit. The second part of the film, which takes place in Vietnam, has a very different tone and feeling than the basic training part of the film. To compare the two films does neither justice, since they each stand on their own. One isn't necessarily better than the other, they are just two different ways of showing the horrors of war.

It can be argued that the horrors of basic training are almost as terrible as the actual war, at least as seen through Kubrick's lens. He strives to make Hartman as terrifying as anyone with a gun, because his sole purpose in life was to turn all of the new Marine recruits into machine-like killing machines. He shows zero mercy on the weaker recruits, including Pyle, who is one of the more memorable and harrowing characters in the film. The physical side of training is nothing compared to what Hartman puts them through psychologically. Ermey, who was a former Marine sergeant in real life, earned a Golden Globe nomination for the part, a rare feat for someone who was only in half the film. It was a part he would build the rest of his career around, playing either pushy Hartman-like men or mocking them in comedies. This will be the part he's always remembered for though, particularly his propensity to unleash a legendary string of tirades and obscenities that would make the most hardened sailor blush.

Before "Full Metal Jacket," Kubrick's films had always had a certain style to them, but that was abandoned for this film. It is based on the novel "The Short Timers," which was similarly broken into distinct parts and had a nontraditional narrative style. Some of the lines were lifted straight from the book, which is particularly chilling considering the number of slurs and derogatory remarks flung at the Marines. The famed director took a big risk in creating this type of movie. It has paid off, with "Full Metal Jacket" becoming increasingly acclaimed as time has gone on. It may be a period piece, but in today's unsteady and war-torn world, it still rings awfully true.

Rating: 4 out of 5