Monday, May 29, 2017

Full Metal Jacket

Some time ago I was counseling a tinnitus patient who had spent time in the United States Marine Corps.  As many of my conversations with these servicemen tend to go, I had to ask about the accuracy of 1987's FULL METAL JACKET.  Namely, the infamous first forty-five minutes, as new recruits on Parris Island are subjected to all manner of verbal abuse by their gunnery sergeant during basic training.  My patient, as many before him, had confirmed that real life vet R. Lee Ermey gave an on the money performance.  The lengthy tirades and dress downs, all accurate.

My patient, let's call him Steve, went on to describe what separates a Marine from those in other armed forces.  Namely that they are not bred to be corporate, chain of command types who have to stick closely to playbooks, contact management to get every little thing done, etc.  This surprised me.  Steve also observed that many idiosyncratic types are found in the Corp. People who bring a variety of quirks.  I thought of Private Joker, so dubbed by Sergeant Hartman (Ermey) and well played by Matthew Modine.  Steve recalled his own gunnery sarge kicking over his foot locker, whispering taunts in his ears while he tried to sleep.  A barrage of psychological games.

As director Stanley Kubrick had explored the theme of dehumanization in several prior films, there must have been some law of cinema that brought Gustav Halsford's novel The Short Timers to his attention.  There are few settings better to exemplify the erosion of soul, the destruction of the individual better than during basic training.  Where hair is shorn down to the skull and uniforms are just that in order to remove any distinguishing characteristics.  And what is learned in the barracks is then taken overseas.

The opening scenes of FULL METAL JACKET explode with a lapel grabbing urgency that no viewer is likely to forget.  Ermey belittles, humiliates, and berates his grunts with some seriously creative obscenity.  He never stammers or repeats himself (apparently he was able to go on for a very long time during rehearsals, even when repeatedly pelted by tennis balls).  He is an equal opportunity offender, but when Private Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) proves to be inept at even the most rudimentary of tasks, Hartman singles him out for considerable ridicule and punishment, which in the great tradition of societal norms means that the entire group also suffers.

The first part of the film maintains a mesmerizing power, equal parts terrorizing and wryly funny.  The Corp. exists to break men down, then rebuild them as machines. Killers with a single-minded purpose.  We've witnessed basic training scenes before in the movies but Kubrick's are beyond the usual montages of marching and weapon reassembling.  Beyond grand drama, even.  It's as if he's tapped into the fear that lurks in men's (and women's) souls, played out in harshly lit (director trademark) barracks and restrooms.  Not everyone featured in the early scenes will be around for Act II......

....which features the privates in Vietnam.  Pvt. Joker, mainly, as he assumes a role as a journalist but soon enough finds himself in "the shit", meeting a group of colorful individuals like machine gunner "Animal Mother" (Adam Baldwin) and "Eightball" (Dorian Harewood) and his old platoon mate "Cowboy" (Arliss Howard), now a sergeant and leader of a rifle squad.  The Tet Offensive has brought the North Vietnamese Army out of all corners, though Kubrick will focus on a lone sniper in the later scenes.

The tone of FULL METAL JACKET becomes grimmer the closer we get to the "mercy killing finale". The sniper ambush scenes leading up to it eschew the satire, and maybe some of the power drains away.  Maybe it begins to feel like an old school war epic, a Sam Fuller production.   Kubrick maintains a consistently caustic tone as platoon leaders preach about how within every "gook" there is an American itching to get out.  Or when a camera crew pans across our boys, each with a perfectly timed witticism.  There are elements of the director's DR. STRANGELOVE in some scenes.

I've seen FULL METAL JACKET numerous times.  Consideration of the entire movie, from gunnery bark to a weary chorus of the "Mickey Mouse Club" theme, reveals both a grunt's worn down perspective and a meticulous director's riff on one or two chords.  Kubrick's limitations on scope allow him to probe a few elements that much more deeply.  Devastating.

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