One of the more brilliant aspects to Stanley Kubrick’s shattering Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket is how it’s both emotionally distancing yet almost impossibly intimate at the same time. This is a hellish film – literally, figuratively, and metaphorically – with everything from R. Lee Ermey’s sadistic verbal abuses to the strategically placed fiery debris in the final act suggesting an Inferno that can never be quelled. This is one of the first films that I ever saw with extreme graphic violence, and it made an immediate impact on me as a kid; it taught me how lethal a bullet can be. And over the years, as I’ve gradually become more and more desensitized to movie violence, if I return to Full Metal Jacket, I become instantly reminded of how visceral and powerful and sad it is.
Even after countless viewings, it remains affecting in ways that I can’t really describe. It’s on the short list of the finest Hollywood depictions of that terrible War and its aftermath, sitting next to Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon, The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Casualties of War, and John Irvin’s rarely discussed Hamburger Hill, which would serve as a precursor to more modern efforts like Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers, and Ridley Scott’s Somalia-set benchmark combat film Black Hawk Down. And of course, the two distinct halves that comprise the narrative to Full Metal Jacket are unique in that it feels like a movie with two chapters, rather than the traditional three acts.
The action is intense in Full Metal Jacket, but in a fashion that’s very different from most films, because everything is so matter of fact. Douglas Milsome’s gliding, engrossing camerawork draws the viewer into each situation and conflict, never shying away from the gory details or pulling any punches. The purposefully rigid performances, a common practice in Kubrick’s films, stressed the satire in key spots, and everyone in the cast, especially Matthew Modine as an eager reporter and Vincent D’Onofrio as the infamous, dim-bulbed Private Pyle, projected a blank innocence which settles in with the viewer; their dignity is stripped from them and so is yours. The film is also caustically hilarious during many portions of the opening act, with Ermey spouting off all sorts of graphically barbed insults at the fresh recruits.
Kubrick never made an uninteresting film, and Full Metal Jacket, beneath its icy exterior, contains layer after layer of psychological examination that is tough to find in other films in this genre. Kubrick was a realist underneath it all, and although his films became more and more heightened and stylized as his career progressed, there was always a way to pin his work to something tangible, whether the atmosphere be psychological horror in The Shining, head-trip existentialism in 2001, or marital infidelity and sexual jealousy in his erotic odyssey Eyes Wide Shut. But one of the reasons that Full Metal Jacket has stood the test of time, and probably become even greater as the years have progressed, is because it blew open expected aesthetic doors, and boldly confronted a death machine that would shape America and the rest of the world for years to come.