As I sat down to watch Full Metal Jacket, I knew only two things about the plot. The first was that R. Lee Armey’s blackly comic Gunnery Sergeant Hartman was going to steal with the show with his improvised dialogues and politically incorrect, unreserved insults. The second was an oft-repeated opinion of almost everyone who I heard talk about it. “The first half in boot-camp is great, but the actual war part is conventional and aimless.”
The first part, about R. Lee Armey, came true almost immediately. The opening scene of Hartman surveying his troops and trying to crack each of them through verbal abuse is funny enough for us to forgive the troop who laughs, and Private “Joker” Davis’ (Matthew Modine) first line about John Wayne plants the film’s crucial seed. Meanwhile, Stanley Kubrick’s detached, mechanical observations, his steady tracking shots and otherwise rigid camera, of the soldiers in boot-camp perfectly set the tone for the unthinking brainwashed culture that Hartman is trying to produce. In war, particularly a guerrilla war like the one in Vietnam, it is shoot first, ask questions later, or you will be killed, he tells them. Much of this section is quite heavy-handed and simple, as when Hartman uses Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald as examples of what “one motivated Marine and his rifle can do,” and promises that before his platoon leave the island, “you will all be able to do the same thing.”
As obvious as the brainwashing, which we also see through emphasized, almost clinical long takes of “Sir, yes, sir!” being handily repeated ad nauseum and through call-and-response rhymes, the boot camp also builds upon the theme of masculinity planted by Joker’s “John Wayne” line. The rhymes the soldiers repeat are “this is my rifle, this is my gun/this is for fighting, this is for fun” (complete with a crotch grab on “gun” and “fun”) far more often than “1, 2, 3, 4/United States Marine Corps.” They are told to give their rifle a woman’s name and treat it as such. Essentially, they are trying to remove the feminine and become ruthless, prototypical masculine killers. For most of them, it succeeds; for one (two, really) it ends tragically. But this is war now, so even with a couple dead bodies, the fight goes on, and we follow Joker into journalism and then war. The two best performances (Armey and Vincent D’Onofrio as Private Pyle) are left behind, but the film’s more complicated themes begin to emerge.
Admittedly, this half, which follows Joker through journalism and into combat, is relatively aimless, but it’s worth remembering that this is the Vietnam War. Kubrick has the benefit of hindsight, and compared to the rigidity of the first half, the loose and disjointed structure of the war half reflects precisely what the war actually was. Joker’s boss reminds him that the war isn’t popular in America, and the missions that we witness have their real-life inspirations but lack a clear purpose in the film. It’s clear that the wandering, purposeless tone of the latter half is largely intentional. The bigger problem is the tendency for the film to spell out its major themes for you. Joker wears both a peace sign and a helmet that says “Born to kill,” but he is questioned about it quickly and rattles off Jung’s theory about the duality of man. It’s a theme that runs throughout the film since its beginning, but at this point it becomes too obvious, and Adam Baldwin’s character, an ultra-masculine, trigger-happy killer, also comes with his thematic purpose strung out too heavily.
Still, as a deconstruction of the masculinity that boot camp created, the war half is still mostly a success. The film’s emotional climax blurs the line between mercy-killing and a literalized attempt to destroy the feminine, and although it leads to an unnecessarily abrupt end, it hits as hard as the climax to boot camp, which is also a thematic parallel. The almost-documentary style, which includes numerous interviews, often conducted by different people, further emphasizes the success (and lack thereof) of the brainwashing. Long after boot camp’s tragic ending, Private Pyle haunts the screen. Joker tries to fight his way out of dualities—masculine/feminine, killer/human, soldier/journalist—but in the end all of these constructions are just that—constructions. Joker may survive, but his psyche is broken in more ways than one.