Master of war

Kubrick brings it all home
By OWEN GLIEBERMAN  |  November 14, 2006

This article originally appeared in the June 26, 1987 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

Full Metal Jacket is the Stanley Kubrick movie we’ve been waiting for. It’s not only the most spectacular visualization of modern warfare ever attempted, but, I think, a flat-out great film — as overpowering emotionally as it is spellbinding to watch. Even those of us who’ve loved and defended Kubrick’s eccentrically stylized visions over the past 20 years may be a little taken aback by the directness of what he brings off here; it’s as though, after that clunky/vertiginous conceptual haunted-house movie The Shining, the lust to make something fully human had overwhelmed him. Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick’s Vietnam film, and from the comic shock of the opening sequence, a rapid-fire documentary-style montage of new Marine recruits — including several of the actors from the film — receiving military haircuts as a C&W ballad with the lyrics “Kiss me goodbye and write me while I’m gone/goodbye sweetheart, hello Vietnam!” twangs on the soundtrack (the locks are shorn so quickly – about three seconds per head—that you want to laugh and cry out in protest), the tone is raw, earthy, audacious. Right off, Kubrick tells you he’s less intent on making a statement about the war than on getting you to experience what it is to be a soldier, and what it might have felt like to be one in Vietnam.

Of course, there have been some very good movies made about that particular war. But with a subject as messy and immediate as Vietnam (and as technological as modern combat), there’s a delicate line between fiction and reality, and this is the first movie to walk it — the first one with the transporting, imaginative force of a superb story that also refuses to get bogged down in symbol, metaphor, self-conscious meaning. Apocalypse Now, for all its audio-visual brilliance, was finally a carnage-laden head-trip movie with a bogus mythic center, culminating in the Colonel-Marlon-Brando-explains-it-all-for-you finale; The Deer Hunter had its excruciatingly tense Russian-roulette sequence and its earnest sense of a working-class community ripped asunder, but the story and characters faded in and out of coherence — the second half, especially, was at once stirring and vague; Platoon, though beautifully crafted was too much a conventional genre picture — and, with its wooden, noble hero and its good-and-bad-sergeant  morality-play structure, too emotionally tidy — to begin to tap the complexity of what Vietnam reflected (and altered) in the American spirit. Full Metal Jacket is shattering, yet the hush in the theater afterward has less to do with what the film “says” than with the tangle of feelings it evokes. Like any work of art, it leaves you in that quiet, resonating space where resolutions aren’t called for.

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