Master of war

By OWEN GLIEBERMAN  |  November 14, 2006

Snaking its way through this sequence is a lurid comic melodrama centering on the misery of Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), who takes his nickname from TV’s Gomer.  This huge, oval-faced fatty, who looks like Christopher Cross with a lobotomy, is like the super-inept kid in gym class whom nobody wants to have on his team.  He becomes a figure of cosmic scorn — first for the sergeant, who makes him march with his pants down and his thumb in his mouth, like a baby, and then for the recruits, when they all start getting punished for Pyle’s screw-ups ( a traditional military brand of negative reinforcement) and respond by beating him in the middle of the night.  When Pyle, who turns out to be a crack shot, begins to have conversations with his gun (he takes the sergeant’s order to treat your weapon like a girlfriend a bit too seriously), it becomes clear that the daily degradation has turned the dough-faced wimp into a psycho killer.  This bordering-on-cliché situation is played for easy laughs; Pyle soon acquires a demonic eyeballs-into-the-forehead look, like Alex in the opening shot of A Clockwork Orange — a look of murder as lust.  But this part of the movie climaxes with his breakdown, and it’s a double shocker: in an instant, we see the scary extremes (of sadism and masochism) underlying basic training.  What Kubrick has done in this funny, intentionally detaching opening is to soften us for the kill.  He’s setting us up to see how, when a soldier gets to war, or at least Vietnam, the stylized, almost farcical unreality of basic training (a nonstop performance for recruits and sergeant alike) explodes in his face.

In Da Nang, we finally get acquainted with the hero Private Joker (Matthew Modine), a laconic, handsome dude whose gold wire frames and quizzical manner give him the aura of an acerbic philosophy major, seems comically at home in ‘Nam.  (Actually, he’s just using his sophomoric wit to insulate himself from the war.)  During the basic-training sections, he came on as rather gutsy, goading the sergeant with his John Wayne impression, but now he seems content with his loafer’s assignment as a reporter from Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper put out to boost the morale of the boys in combat.  Joker, as his name suggests, is a flake, a ‘60s put-on artist.  He delights in giving everyone a hard time, whether it’s a slinky teen hooker prowling the streets of Da Nang with the come-on “I’m so hawn-y! Only 15 dollah — I love you long time!” or his editor/superior officer, a smoothie who spends his days assigning staffers to cover Ann-Margret’s arrival at the airport or instructing them to replace the phrase “search and destroy” with the bureaucratic euphemism “sweep and clear.”

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