I saw Full Metal Jacket in the first week of its theatrical release and went again only a few days later, partly to figure out how I really felt about it. Since first seeing it, it has tended to diminish in stature in my imagination. I’ve had it on DVD for some time, and this most recent viewing was probably the first after some twenty years.
Nonetheless, I should have realized that if I remembered the film as well as I did, it has more going for it than I credited. For one thing, I had forgotten how incredibly beautiful it is. Not in the painterly manner of Barry Lyndon, nor with the cosmic scope of 2001 or even possessing the cold, hard-edged brilliance of A Clockwork Orange, but in a stunningly bleak evocation of the Vietnam War as a Modernist hell. Far from the voluptuous, ecstatic jungle vision in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Jacket recreates the time and place as a dank, hopelessly tangled and chaotic jumble of shattered concrete, twisted metal, consuming fire and fluorescent glare.
The glare is most obvious in the film’s first half, in which the protagonist, Joker (Matthew Modine) goes through basic training, or perhaps more accurately, undergoes the brutal conditioning necessary to remove all individuality in each recruit. Often described as the film’s best moments, the boot camp scenes are certainly unforgettable, in no small part because of the flamboyant performance by R. Lee Ermey as the training sergeant and Vincent D’Onofrio’s psychotic recruit, Leonard, aka “Gomer Pyle.” The very success of those sequences, however, is partly responsible for my discomfort with the film. For effective as they are, they are also so heavy-handed and grotesque that they overpower the rest. They are too assertive, too exaggerated, too singular to convince they are laying the groundwork for Joker’s graduation to killer.
On the other hand, the film’s most noteworthy achievement is its unsympathetic depiction of Joker and the kind of smart aleck mentality he represents. Joker is a smug little hypocrite, sneering at the battle experiences he hasn’t had, thinking himself smart because he’s read more than his officers and ready to divest himself of any empathy as soon as it becomes inconvenient. Vietnam exposes his “idealism” and facetious irony as the self-confidence of a fool. He’s gung-ho for action until confronted with the reality of it. With the confrontation, the smarts turn into hard-edged self-interest, wrapped in a flag.
That’s why the training camp sequences should not stand out. There is nothing special about what they depict. They are merely one expression of a fundamentally hypocritical society that suppresses any real individuality in an equal opportunity coercion pitched to the lowest common denominator. Which is also why the ending is so brilliantly perverse. Sadists may murder for pleasure; fanatics do it for ideology. Americans do it to make the world safe for Mickey Mouse.