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Some great filmmaking but not a great film
on 17 July 2013
With Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick delivers some great film-making but not a great film. Divided into two unequal halves, the first (and by far superior) section follows the dehumanising Marine training regime at Parris Island, the second the fragmented experiences of one of the recruits (Modine) as a correspondent for the G.I. propaganda paper Stars and Stripes. If it has improved with age and altered expectations - and with only two films a decade, people always tended to expect too much from Kubrick - it still doesn't quite cut it.
The most obvious feeling you get from the film is that Kubrick cut himself off from the real world - more from a generation gap than the exaggerated tales of his reclusiveness - a fatal mistake for any film-maker. Perhaps the most perfectly insulated and zealously protected filmmaker since the birth of the medium (though Terrence Malick seems eager to go one better these days), to his credit his denial does not take the mainstream form of appealing purely to the visceral but rather errs to the side of cold intellect. His characters do not exist of themselves. They have no life before or after the film, and precious little during it either. They are there to make a point, but in the case of Full Metal Jacket it is one that has been made before, and better.
The training sequences recall the gladiator school in Spartacus, bullied simpleton D'Onofrio's revolt just as futile. He is Spartacus, Humbert Humbert, Hal 9000 and the Doomsday Device all rolled into one malfunctioning package, conditioned and programmed by society in such a way that their confusion between what is expected and what is in their nature leads to their inevitable destruction. Totally dehumanised, he is no longer bound by any moral code or any human feeling - the perfect Kubrick protagonist.
Yet the other characters don't seem too wound up by their experiences once they reach Vietnam. There's no sense of people adjusting their morality to deal with the daily atrocities of war. Indeed, there's no sense of real human behaviour. Despite the presence of war correspondent Michael Herr as co-writer, it seems uninformed by reality or experiences of veterans and is always emphatically just a movie. There is a hint that Kubrick sees Vietnam as the first war where soldiers did not willingly subjugate their individuality - the first war that dehumanises or de-programmes its fighting units through trauma and the lack of a just cause - but not much more.
Point made, Kubrick has nothing left to say. The impressive camerawork that takes the place of one of the platoon on point soon becomes as repetitive and over-used as the obsessive steadicam shots in The Shining. The clichéd and protracted finale neither convinces or adds anything to the argument and is frankly so old hat it could have easily come from a forties programmer.
Compared to the relentless cynicism and disillusionment of films like the all-but-forgotten The Victors or Anthony Mann's Men in War, it is positively romantic in its idealism. The Marines are morally clean (especially compared to the atrocity laden source novel), spouting cliches to hide their inarticulacy while the officers are parodic, reinventing language into a form of Newspeak for sake of appearances. The politics are simplistic to the point of non-existence, with too many obviously stage-managed speeches for credibility.
Too many of the images are second-hand and devoid of subtext - at least when Coppola had a newsreel cameraman turn up on a battlefield, he acknowledged his own exploitation of Vietnam by playing the director. Kubrick is just another tourist in this war. There but not there, taking a few good snapshots as he passes through but never truly understanding the suffering and confusion behind them, he's never really involved and, once we reach Vietnam, neither are we.
There is still much to admire. Abigail Mead's hostile, unnerving synth score works in direct contrast to traditional film music, keeping emotion and individuality at bay and forcing the characters into disciplined rhythmic behaviour. Performances are generally better than the norm for Kubrick and production designer Anton Furst's transformation of the then-derelict London Docklands into Vietnam is truly astonishing. But it still has that coldness of the heart that blocks a truly emotional response. Whereas Paths of Glory moved you to anger and tears, Full Metal Jacket is so carefully and intricately choreographed and devoid of spontaneity that it is merely of technical, not even academic, interest. The tragedy of war is the tragedy of loss, but Kubrick's cinema of dehumanisation is so complete that loss is impossible: his characters are barely human to begin with, his filmmaking mere displays of technique and precision from a virtuoso technician who repeats all his best tricks too many times.
While earlier video and DVD releases were in fullframe (as Kubrick preferred ion pre-widescreen TV days) with only a trailer as extra, the remastered Blu-ray is in 1.85:1 widescreen and boasts a stunningly good transfer (the first BD release was less than impressive) and throws in a couple of extras. There's a half hour featurette about the film, the trailer and a cut-and-past audio commentary with Adam Baldwin, Lee Ermey, writer Jay Cocks and Vincent D'Onofrio - the latter inclusion enough to have Kubrick rolling in his grave since he always specifically requested he have nothing to do with the promotional campaigns for the films video releases after their extremely combative working relationship on the set.