How should we approach the movie ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)? As a war movie? As a Vietnam war movie? As one of the Vietnam war movies of the 1980s, alongside Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), Good Morning Vietnam (Barry Levinson, 1987) and Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone again, 1989)? As one of the Vietnam war movies of the 1980s made in the shadow of the truly great Vietnam war movies of the 1970s, The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)?
Or as a Stanley Kubrick movie, following Spartacus (1960), Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980)?
The story the film tells is straightforward: an educated young man has enlisted in the US Marines; he and his fellow recruits undergo military training at the hands of a brutal Sergeant Major; the young man then begins working as a journalist for an Army newspaper, initially reporting on and then participating in military activity in Vietnam. The story attends closely to the individual experience of the young journalist and a handful of colleagues. There is little or no examination of wider context, no obvious reflection on the rationale for the war, no explanation of why this particular battle or operation is taking place. The film opens without asking a question and concludes without having offered any answers.
The film is, nevertheless, a hugely satisfying experience. It is shocking, distressing, clever, funny and completely engrossing. It is a film that, if you have not seen, you should.
The interesting question, then, is: how does this film manage to achieve these effects? It is certainly not the story – which is, as I have said, almost painfully elementary.
The acting? Perhaps. The characters are persuasive and the performances are convincing.
The dialogue? Perhaps. The script is sparse and tightly-drawn and has an air of verisimilitude.
The cinematography? Perhaps. The camera-work is tremendous, balancing intimate close-ups with panoramic sweeps, doing so in a way that is always appropriate.
The staging? The scenery? The lighting, the costumes, the make-up, the special effects? Perhaps perhaps perhaps perhaps.
The direction, then? And here our ‘perhaps’ becomes a ‘probably’; but is still not quite enough. Kubrick, perhaps more than any other American film-maker (until, probably, Quentin Tarantino) meets the criteria for being described as ‘auteur’ – an individual, usually a director, who exerts so much control over a film that he (or she) is effectively its ‘author’. Yes, Kubrick directs the film ‘Full Metal Jacket’: but the experience of watching the movie is of being completely immersed in his imagination; of being in the assured and comfortable hands of someone who has a perfect sense of his own vision, as well as the skills and expertise to render that vision in perfect fashion. Nothing that should be here is missing. Nothing is here that need not be here.
By way of illustration, I noticed that there are five scenes during the first half of the movie when the squad of trainees is seen jogging as a group. Five. Each scene is almost exactly the same as the others. The group is in formation. They are jogging around the parade ground, or between the accommodation blocks. The Sergeant Major is leading the singing. The group is in formation. They are jogging. That’s it. Five times.
This sort of thing should be boring. Nothing is happening. We have seen it before. Why is Kubrick making us watch them jogging again?
Then think of Tarantino – making us watch someone pouring a beer, lingering over the shot; or making us watch someone walk through the snow to go to the toilet and showing us the whole of the walk; or making us listen to a completely inane conversation with no direct relevance to the plot.
In each case, the auteur just knows – it is part of their genius – that the film needs this. Did Kubrick ‘decide’ that should be five jogging scenes rather than three or six or one or twenty? I suspect not. Yes, he wanted to convey something of the repetitious nature of the training that goes into becoming a Marine. But, much more importantly, he had a complete sense of what he wanted the film to be; and every single part of it contributes to that being. No part of it is more or less important than any other. He found out, during the making of it (like a sculptor?) that it needed five jogging scenes, and five jogging scenes is what it has.
The entire film is like this. Quiz any part of it, and be left with a ‘perhaps’ or a ‘maybe’ or even a ‘probably’. See it is as a whole – and that’s what it is. Complete, even with its omissions. Perfect, even with its flaws.
Like a Shakespeare play, it is almost impossible to watch a film such as this without its context, without its Vietnam war movie or Kubrick movie baggage. But, like the best of Shakespeare, in the end it doesn’t matter – Full Metal Jacket is itself, no more no less, and is a piece of timeless genius.