Full Metal Jacket is a satire focused on the Vietnam War split into two distinct halves. The first half of the movie is Marine training and the second half is battle footage. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick, who was also part of the writing team.
Kubrick is a problematic director, especially with his torture of Shelley Duvall in The Shining. The actors playing Marine cadets at Paris Island in the first half of the film were subjected to a realistic Bootcamp. How much acting versus reacting they did is up for interpretation. It makes for a realistic portrayal of the elimination of self in the construction of a soldier. I wonder how much basic training has changed since the movie was filmed. It also made me question if any of this training was effective. The people that train soldiers are often the soldiers of the previous war with tactics that are out of date for the next war.
All these questions are intentionally raised by Kubrick as we see Private Pyle, Vincent D’Onofrio, descend into madness. He is singled out from the group and becomes the source of group punishment. He is the weakest link in the chain but only Private Joker, Matthew Modine, makes any effort to help Pyle. Punishing the weakest link does not seem effective and the close to the first act of the movie makes a definitive statement on the potential consequences.
The second act of the movie follows Private Joker into Vietnam as a Marine news correspondent. Many critics have pointed out how the second act is a disjointed series of vignettes. Joker’s wearing of a peace pin is one of the few through lines. It is contrasted by ‘Born to kill’ emblazoned on his helmet. When confronted about it, he explains it is a comment on the duality of man. That seems to be the central point that Kubrick is reaching for in the film. Individualism and group collectivism are brought up time and time again.
I believe that individuality is what contributes to a collective group's ability to perform. Joker steps away from the group to help the outcast. When in battle as the leaders of the group die off and new soldiers fill that role, we see a variety of leadership styles and the consequences of an individual's actions. It is also apparent that much of the training in Bootcamp is useless in real combat. Joker gets to remain an individual with his reporting, but he also must modify his writing to meet the group’s ambitions with the paper and keeping morale up within the larger group of active-duty marines.
The film has Kubrick’s fingerprints all over it. There is no mistaking who made it, especially once we get to Vietnam and see the recurring low angle camera shot Kubrick loves. I do not think the movie breaks any new ground. It is likely unfair to take all the Bootcamp filming as fact, this is not a documentary. The time we spend in Vietnam does not dig very deep into the experience of those in combat. The movie revolves around Private Joker, but I am not sure he ever really grows as a character. I also can’t put my finger on exactly what Kubrick wants me to believe about the nature of man. Maybe this movie is one to be replaced with film course syllabi. Da 5 Bloods feels like a good replacement to me or at the very least a great film to contrast with when discussing more soldiers’ takeaways from serving in combat operations in Vietnam.