Master of war

By OWEN GLIEBERMAN  |  November 14, 2006

This part of the movie, ushered in with a witty crane shot tailing the hooker in her heels and black-leather mini to the tune of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” is airy and amusing; it offers a more relaxed version of the wryly stilted tone of basic training.  Then, just as we’ve eased into the sensation of chuckling at the screen, Kubrick starts to up the ante.  The soldiers are sitting around the bunkhouse, and a character named Payback starts bragging about “the stare” you get after having been in battle.  The way Kubrick has orchestrated things, this is the first utterly serious verbal communication in the film: Payback’s slow-burn intensity takes the emotional pitch to a new level.  And this sort of thing keeps happening.  The movie gets ominous and scary by degrees — that it gradually stops being comic is part what makes the second half so intense, and the effect is to make you feel as though you were sucking in one long, slow breath of dread.  Joker and another reporter/private, the blond, genial Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), are dispatched to Hue after the Tet offensive breaks.  The Helicopter ride is a horror: they share the chopper with a monstrous psycho who keeps firing his machine gun at random peasants, and poor Rafterman is so terrified at this first encounter with live, murderous ferocity that he can’t stop gagging.  The scene has an undertone of squeamish humor: we’re disturbed at how visceral Rafterman’s fear is, but we don’t want to watch him lose his breakfast any more than he does.

Joker and Rafterman are lead to a roofless domestic ruin where the platoon they’ve been sent to cover is hanging out, waiting for orders.  And it’s here, with Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ ‘Wooly Bully” playing in ironically jaunty counterpart, that the films slow slide from humor to nightmare realism begins to hit your bloodstream like opium.  Adam Baldwin, a muscled-up, stony-faced actor familiar from teen movies, appears as Animal Mother, a giant who wears rows of bullets like Rambo and calls his black fellow soldiers “nigger” to their faces; he may be off his rocker, but he’s got a bully’s sixth sense, pegging Joker for the gentle-souled smartass he is.  Then the platoon leader, a Southerner with a friendly grin and cold, dead eyes, introduces Joker and Rafterman to a Vietnamese corpse with a hat over its face.  And staring right into the camera, with “Wooly Bully” still chugging along, he removes the hat from his “bro” and delivers an extraordinary, over-the-top-of-sarcasm speech about how much he and the boys sure hope this war keeps going, because if it stops —  well, shucks, there wouldn’t be any more gooks to kill.  This sequence gives you the sensation of getting stoned with a stranger sitting across the room, and of feeling you’re both sinking into the same dream.  To say that the basic training sequence seems to belong to a different movie is to miss the point.  Suddenly, basic training —  indeed, anything that’s not his craziness —  is eons away.  The boys, to borrow Sergeant Hartman’s phrase, are in a world of shit now, and the strange thing is, it feels like home. 

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