By Gary Kafer
If war has become its own cinematic genre, then certainly Vietnam movies constitute a certain subgenre, populated with critically acclaimed works like Platoon, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now. An intricate piece of a tumultuous era in history, the Vietnam War has since occupied a precarious position in the collective memory of the American consciousness as an incredibly unpopular armed conflict rife with discontent both on the frontlines and the home front.
It is here that Stanley Kubrick inserts his controversial 1987 Full Metal Jacket – a piercing, violent, and unwavering depiction of the psychological and physical trauma experienced during the Vietnam War. Based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers, Kubrick’s two part film examines both the processes of becoming a killing machine and also becoming lost in the very machine of war itself. Beginning with a montage of men getting their heads buzzed set to Johnnie Wright’s “Hello Vietnam,” Kubrick immediately establishes a prevailing mode of irony, which decreases our empathy with the characters and complicity in the narrative. And perhaps this is a good thing, as the hellish environment of the Parris Island boot camp comes to reflect the atrocities of combat. Under the command of Sergeant Hartman, portrayed by an ascetic R. Lee Ermey, the trainees, among them the stoic James “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) and his disturbed counterpart Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), endure a cascade of merciless tests, satirically choreographed as a pseudo-opera of profanities, grunts, and gun clicks.
It is in this sense that such scenes of stress-inducing labor do not go without hints of Kubrick’s subversive humor, one that prompts uncomfortable punch lines in moments of extreme, albeit creative, vulgarity at the expense of the trainees’ machismo. However, Kubrick frames this black comedy as particular to the boot camp, as most (if not all) of the tongue-in-cheek humor fades against the backdrop of the actual conflict once Joker is sent to the frontlines as a combat correspondent. Certainly, scenes like the helicopter gunner mowing down innocent Vietnamese suggests that most of the soldiers, and to some extent Joker himself, treat their situation like a playground. However, images of death move the film into strange new territory as Kubrick forces us to disengage a cynical voyeurism to ponder deep ethical questions of how we experienced and remember Vietnam, especially decades after the conclusion of the war at the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Perhaps here we may locate the film’s satire of the American intervention, which comes to the fore as Joker’s squadron gets picked off in the final scenes by a young Vietnamese girl with a sniper rifle. Yet, at the same time, Kubrick is keen to dispel any symptoms of catharsis in the concluding images as the soldiers march off in the distance singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song with columns of fire engulfing the horizon, which suspends the film in an odd conceptual pastiche – not quite reality, but not quite metaphor either. What results is a sardonic examination of wartime experience, which uses comedy as a critical method, but to the extent that it makes us uncomfortable with our own spectatorship. And this is Kubrick’s genius at work. We may be able to criticize parts of his narrative as shallow and chauvinist, but only if we are able to recognize within ourselves the same tendencies in how we respond to this sort of humor, and ultimately how we understand and remember war.
Gary Kafer, originally from southern Virginia, is a senior in Cinema Studies and Visual Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
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