The plot of Full Metal Jacket doesn’t unfold — it unravels, brilliantly. We’re given all of this background on the Tet offensive and this satirical build-up of God-knows-what, and suddenly, it’s just Joker and Rafterman and a platoon they don’t even belong to in the bombed out moonscape of Hue City, fighting for their lives. There’s no plan, no knowledge of what’s happening, no sense of a superior officer as anything but an ineffectual crackly voice at the other end of the walkie-talkie. Kubrick doesn’t explain that Vietnam was a war without battle lines, logic, sanity; he doesn’t craft metaphors. He makes you experience that dizzying haphazardness. The director who once called Blade Runner “the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen” visualizes the ruins of Vietnam with a postnuclear lyricism — he goes beyond even Blade Runner in finding grandeur in squalid urban wreckage. The artfulness of his staging isn’t limited to the amazing physical setting (actually an abandoned gasworks town on the Thames that Kubrick systematically destroyed) — the grayish carcasses of buildings emitting quiet plumes of smoke and flame, the rubble atop rubble, a few randomly scattered palm trees. It’s in the atmosphere of disaster and ironic calm: in the distant machine-gun blasts that seem to be coming from 20 different locales; in the way the subjective-camera style of America’s legendary TV coverage of the war is incorporated into Kubrick’s own visual design, with everything kept at ground level, the action exploding in your face; in the musical score (by Abigail Mead), which is like a slow death chant — the sound of animals crying after the hunt; in the fact that you hardly ever see the Vietnamese soldiers the Americans are fighting against, or with. It’s a phantom war.
The line that’s so often been used to sum up our moral-political status in Vietnam (“America had no business there”) is treated here in purely perceptual terms. No one knows better than these characters that they aren’t fighting for “freedom.” The taking-off point for Full Metal Jacket is that this sort of floating combat — young men skulking through ruins firing at an enemy they can barely see — couldn’t possibly be said to be for anything but itself. Does this vision reflect the unique chaos and atrocity of Vietnam, or of warfare in general? Perhaps both. Perhaps in the age of high-tech weaponry and global powers bogged down in guerrilla fighting and the absence of any shared sense of national mission, the disoriented view of the solider is the only one we can accept as genuine; perhaps the very notion of a “just” war, or even a manageable one, is now unthinkable The TV reporters recording the battle for Hue become and absurd sight: it’s warfare turned into spectacle, into entertainment, even as it happens. For a war epic (not to mention a Kubrick film), Full Metal Jacket is modest and light on its feet. The director takes chances and experiments: he creates fake cinéma-vérité interviews with the platoon members (this sort of thing has to be splendidly written and acted to work, and it is) and the only time the film conspicuously fails is when a news team moves past a row of seated soldiers and each delivers a quick, too-glib line about his fantasy identity. The pop-music interludes are exhilarating and a tad spooky. From “Wooly Bully” to the goofball thrash epic “Surfin’ Bird” to the closing-credit use of “Paint It Black” (which newly mythologizes that turbulent early Stones song even more hauntingly that Apocalypse Now did the Doors’ “The End”), Kubrick gets closer to the psychedelic spirit of “the rock-and-roll war” that any other moviemaker has.
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