Full Metal Jacket is like watching the first half of one film and the second half of another, stitched together at the middle like an irregular pair of combat pants. Both halves are individually good, but to consider them one movie seems a bit disingenuous. This seems a bit peculiar on Stanley Kubrick’s part, a director so known for technical perfection and cinematic masterpieces. It’s possible that Kubrick was trying to depict two seemingly-conflicting parts of the soldier experience: Basic Training, where grunts annoyingly have to follow a meticulous set of rules and procedures, and actual war, where they’re desperate for any sort of structure or rulebook to guide them. Possible good intentions aside, Full Metal Jacket just doesn’t cut it. It could have been another one of Kubrick’s masterpieces, if only it picked which film it actually wanted to be.
We start off following a group of Marine recruits as they trudge through boot camp, endlessly berated and chastised by the incomparable Sgt. Hartman, the archetype for every cinematic, gung-ho army or marine commando that followed. If this movie didn’t have Lee Ermey as Hartman it would be immediately forgettable. Ermey commands our respect just as much as he sparks our fear. He’s the type of character you’d want to receive a firm handshake from, but would be deathly afraid to look him in the eye.
The second best character of Full Metal Jacket is Gomer Pyle, a fat, blubbering, miserable excuse of a Marine who can’t keep up with morning jogs or even hoist himself over a simple obstacle course log. He’s irredeemable and quickly earns our disgust along with the rest of his basic training bros. But he’s also the second most fascinating character of the film, only topped by Sgt. Hartman. Through Gomer Pyle, we see the ultimate representation of man’s unpreparedness for war, how our cuddly life of 9-to-5 jobs and fast food dinners have softened us, while disenfranchised folk in third world countries have been learning how to build and dismantle their rifles ever since they could speak.
He’s also a warning of the dangers of group think, how the rest of his Marine trainees literally bond over their hatred of him, leaving him no options to redeem his reputation. At some point, you just wish Joker or Cowboy or another one of the Marines would pull Sgt. Hartman over and whisper that Gomer isn’t cut out for this sort of thing, that he should work a desk job or just be sent home. But then we have to remember that this is during a draft era, when countless other unprepared boys had to prove their manhood even though it was something they never had to work on in the first place. To suddenly be thrust into that position where you have to prove your physical might and bear the weight of two dozen other men on your shoulders is an immense pressure that only few can tolerate.
Gomer, sadly, is not one of them and ends up murdering the Sgt. before killing himself. At this point, the movie stops being interesting, as we’re shifted to the actual war now, where Joker, Cowboy and other Marines are kicking back in the Asian country. Their heads are full of hair, their hands packed with cigarettes and beer. They think they’ve gone through the worst with basic but then the Tet Offensive happens, and suddenly every Marine fashioning themselves to be a “killer” actually has to go out and show their worth.
This half of the film is pristinely shot, and it’s a marvel just to witness the technical precision of trucks passing or soldiers shooting from helicopters overhead. Kubrick nails the timing of his painting right on the dot, and the result is something that looks as beautiful and gruesome as a Renaissance wartime painting you’d see hanging up in the Louvre. It looks beautiful when its still, but from a storytelling perspective, it just doesn’t work as a moving picture.
If anything, Full Metal Jacket serves as evidence that a great director won’t necessarily make a great war movie. And to be fair, war movies are tough. Battles need to look realistic, characters need to be compelling enough for us to care about them before they’re killed, and we need to get a glimpse of the horrors of war while still being entertained. Another war film that seems like it could trudge down the Full Metal Jacket path is Christopher Nolan’s soon-to-be-released Dunkirk. Trailers for the film look immaculate, but as one friend nicely put, it just looks pretentious. Maybe that’s where Kubrick went wrong with Full Metal Jacket, trying to find perfection and prestige and art in war, when its nothing more than a bloody mess.