Kubrick, who based the film on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers (the screenplay is by Kubrick, Hasford and the former hipster journalist Michael Herr, who wrote the brilliant book of Vietnam reportage Dispatches and, less auspiciously, the voice-over narration for Apocalypse Now) had the simple idea to follow a Marine grunt from basic training over to the war. But he does it in a way that’s hypnotic and unsettling. Although Full Metal Jacket never strays from naturalism, structurally it mirrors what Kubrick did in the main section of 2001: A Space Odyssey and tried (and failed) to do in The Shining — it begins lightly, humorously, then moves away from laughter, progressing through a series of ever more hallucinatory moods; the Vietnam experience becomes a slow descent into fear, violence, and, in a paradoxical way, compassion. The entire first third of the film is a basic-training sequence that’s like an epic, quasi-satirical summing-up of every basic-training sequence ever filmed: we get the hardened drill sergeant who never speaks below a shout, the anal-fixated profanity (in the Marines, where unproven recruits are “ladies,” taking it up the ass is the key metaphor for cowardice, and shit the stuff of death), the stare-downs, the insane discipline, the ceaseless round of threats and humiliation. In Vietnam, the tone shifts, the satire grows less pointed as the soldiers relax into an uneasy camaraderie. The time is 1968, just before the Tet offensive that effectively dashed US hopes of winning the war, and as we begin venturing into the combat regions, there are glimpses of what the war has done to the soldiers, (or rather, what it’s brought out in them): glints of terror, derring-do, psychosis. Then the battle begins—not only the usual war-film fanfare, but slowly, oddly, like a record album sitting on a dead turntable that begins to rev up. Soon, the soldiers are drifting through a decimated urban wilderness that’s seemingly deserted yet rife with flame and sudden death. It’s surreal, it’s apocalyptic, it’s hellishly grand: a cinematic Guernica. And we’re in the bloody thick of it.
Despite its laughs, Full Metal Jacket isn’t a comedy — not any more than, say, Blue Velvet or Nashville. As amusing as the basic-training sequence is, Kubrick knows that giggling at the rigor of military discipline is an old game, and he isn’t out to play it. What he does in this amazing, hyperbolic sequence is to put you, the viewer, through basic training. Lee Ermey, the former Marine officer (and Vietnam veteran) who plays Sergeant Hartman, gives a startling performance; his hoarse rants are witty and crudely mesmerizing, and though he never once breaks his sinewy façade, by the end he’s won some of the same respect-through-intimidation from the audience that he has from the recruits. (You’ve got to love a US military man who uses the JFK assassination as an example of superior marksmanship.) The ongoing, percussive refrain of the recruits (“SIR YES SIR!”) is ritualized, lulling; it’s there to brainwash away their former lives. And Kubrick shows a new lyrical side. He uses lap dissolves to get from one scene to the next (there’s something inherently uncomic about a fade-out), and when he lets the camera glide before the jogging, synchronized soldiers as they do their call-and-response singing with the sergeant, the images and the rhythmic bounce have an elemental pull — it’s like the Marines’ version of gospel testifying. This most notoriously perfectionist of filmmakers isn’t simply out of portray the grueling rituals as a macho absurdity (though that’s implicit). He wants to capture the purpose and, yes, the beauty in this sort of discipline, to make us experience the comedy, the madness, and the primal attraction of perfect order, of masculine aggression and control