Monday, February 25, 2008

Mondays With Stanley - Unnaturally Trained Killers

For most people, taking someone else's life - even someone who had done you wrong or was a threat to you - is not something done likely. It's likely to impact you on such a base level that you might never be able to function again. That being the case, one of the jobs of any military training is to rub away the civilized veneer of modern life and turn relatively well adjusted people into trained killers. That, I think, is at the heart of Full Metal Jacket - what it means to transform human nature in such a fundamental way and whether, indeed, any level of training can really do the trick.

The film is divided into two, largely separate, parts.

The first 50 minutes or so focuses on a platoon of Marine recruits going through basic training at Paris Island, South Carolina. It is dominated by two powerful performances. The first is from R. Lee Ermey, a retired Marine drill sergeant who was originally the technical adviser on the film. After whipping the other actors into shape for their roles as Marines, he sort of sidled his way into the part of their drill instructor. He is the worst nightmare of every drill instructor in any movie you've ever seen. The first 25 minutes of the film basically consist of him yelling at the new recruits, beginning the process of breaking them down to remold them into killers. Ermey's abuse is most copiously heaped upon a dim, slow, overweight recruit he dubs Private Pyle (as in Gomer), played spectacularly by Vincent D'Onofrio. As training continues, Pyle slowly loses his grip on reality, leading to a chilling climax to the first part of the film.

The second part of the film shifts the action to Vietnam, where one of the recruits, Joker, is now a reporter with Stars and Stripes. In the wake of the Tet Offense, he and his photographer are sent deep into "the shit," where he reunites with a fellow recruit and his new outfit. What follows is a lengthy set piece where the company wages battle with a lone sniper in the bombed out ruins of Hue (actually filmed in London, if you can believe it). Men die, the chain of command breaks down, and Joker and the others come face to face with the harsh realities of modern urban warfare in general and Vietnam in particular.

While Full Metal Jacket is a Vietnam film, it is not nearly as specific or personal to Vietnam as something like Oliver Stone's Platoon nor as epic in scope as Scorsese's Apocalypse Now. In that sense, it works on a broader scale than those movies. The ideas of Full Metal Jacket, both in terms of human nature and the nature of modern urban warfare, are evident in debates about Iraq (indeed, the urban scenes set in Hue look disturbingly like any number of Iraqi cities). For that reason, its stature in the pantheon of war movies may rise as the years pass.

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