Master of war

By OWEN GLIEBERMAN  |  November 14, 2006

Matthew Modine’s Joker is a rather sketchy character, and though he gets to speak the inevitable voice-overs, he’s not meant to function the way Charlie Sheen did in Platoon — as the film’s mute, observing moral conscience.  Once the battle commences, the other soldiers become as prominent as he is.  In a sense, the entire platoon is treated as a single character, and that’s appropriate, since Kubrick, instead of imposing a “drama” on top of action scenes, makes the dramatic tension of the movie exactly the same for us as it is for the soldiers:  the drama is in the fear of death, in the struggle to stay alive, in the welter of decisions — at once the practical and moral — a soldier makes to do so.  The battle scenes in Platoon, realistic and impressively staged though they were, went by in a nightmare blur.  Kubrick, audaciously electing to stay out of the jungles, gives his battles a gripping, moment-before-a-car-crash clarity.  He builds them detail by detail and finds a surreal order in the machine-gun madness. 

The movie culminates in a treacherous shoot-out between the platoon and an enemy sniper.  Having brought us through laughter and stoned horror, Kubrick now gives us an almost classic Hollywood war scene — except that we’re so immersed in this war that we experience what happens more intensely, more physically, than in perhaps any other war scene.  As the platoon crouches in front of a ledge and sense one member after another in after the sniper, terror and frustration gather in the air.  It’s only now that we may realize how close we’ve come to characters like the jocular Cowboy ( Arliss Howard), or Eightball (Dorian Harewood), who brushes off racial insults like mosquitoes, or even Animal Mother, whose teeth-baring, get-the-gooks fanaticism discloses shades of heroism when he disobeys orders by charging in to aid a fellow soldier.  This sequence is scary, desperate, shocking ,and moving all at once, and when the platoon finally comes face to face with the sniper, Kubrick gives us his own indelible image of the heart of darkness — only this one is far more organic than Coppola’s, a shudder of horror and sorrow at Vietnam’s special cruelty.

What’s astonishing coming from Kubrick, is how straightforward the last part of Full Metal Jacket is.  For the first time in more than 20 years, he uses wizardry anonymously, as a craftsman; the only showy touch is the slow-motion blood-splattering, when the soldiers are shot by the sniper, and even the choice of such a standard action-film device seems moving.  It’s as if Kubrick were saying “I’ve spent enough years creating my own razzle-dazzle — now, I’m just going to do whatever’s necessary to stir an audience.”  And he does: trying to be a craftsman, he has never been more of an artist.  The sniper’s shots are devastating — we feel the pain of every wound.  Yet Kubrick knows enough not to leave us in Hell.  The conclusion is oddly tranquil, even uplifting.  It says that in experiencing the power and terror of what it feels like to kill, Joker hasn’t just conquered his fear — he’s found his humanity.  In making this transcendent war film, Stanley Kubrick has rediscovered his. 

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