Fire a .22 round, and a casing will go plink on the ground. If you pick up this casing, clean it, crimp it, fill it with powder, seat a new primer and bullet, it will be as good as new.
But when you fire and reload the same casing ten or twenty times, it will eventually not be be good as new. The metal becomes embrittled, prone to cracking and spalling; the walls will be thin, fluxed outward by temperature and pressure; the primer might no longer sit properly; and it will be liable to misfire. There’s variability both in material – in general, brass casings handle repeated firing better than steel or aluminum ones – and in individual casings, but eventually metallurgy will distort your casing past the point of no return. You can never unfire a bullet.
Gunfire changes bullets. It also changes the men firing them. It’s a common pop culture conceit that war irreversibly transforms men – hauls them across an event horizon to sub- or super-humanity. Veterans return to their families and they’re not the same: they quiver, and twitch, are prone to explosive anger and paralyzing fear. Audy Murphy is the US Army’s greatest war hero, credited with 240 kills by one account. Yet he returned from the war a post-traumatic stress case who slept with a gun under his pistol – a gun that he’d use to threaten and terrorize his first wife. But for God’s grace, his kill count would be 241.
Full Metal Jacket is a latter-day Kubrick film about the above transformation. It depicts the lives of several soldiers (or aspirant soldiers) subjected to the furnace of the Vietnam war. Some crack. Others “survive”, but only in biological terms, and not without jettisoning parts of their humanity. All seem to have lost something.
It’s half of a great movie. That’s not bad: most films are zero percent great movie. But it’s impossible not to watch it without feeling some regret: Full Metal Jacket ends up being much smaller than its shadow. I wish it was great all the way through.
Here’s the thing: nearly everyone agrees which half of Full Metal Jacket is good. The boot camp scenes at the start – focusing on the relationship between a bullying drill sergeant and a fat, clumsy recruit – are as compelling as anything ever Kubrick put to film. They’re hilarious, cringeworthy, raw, and so thematically satisfying that when they end, it feels like the movie ends. It’s always a surprise to me when it doesn’t.
R Lee Ermey is fantastic, and carries the movie on his shoulders. He struts up and down a line of terrified recruits like a demonic rooster, reeling off pungently vile insults like stanzas of metered poetry. I’ve heard veterans describe boot camp as “the funniest place you’re not allowed to laugh”, and I kept thinking about that as I saw Ermey say stuff like “unorganized, grab-asstic pieces of amphibian shit” and “slimy little Communist shit twinkle-toed cocksuckers“, ready to dump all the shit in the sky upon the first private to crack a smile.
How accurate is this? I remember a discussion on IMDB’s defunct comments bored – half the vets were saying “This is fantasy” and the rest were saying “This was my boot camp experience, exactly.”
Certain things seem right, based on what I’ve heard from friends who’ve served. Dumping a recruit’s entire kit all over the floor because one little thing isn’t squared away? That happens. Punishing an entire class for one recruit’s screw-up? That, too. Ermey’s behavior has a cruel kind of logic behind it. He’s weeding out “non-hackers”. If you’re going to fail, you’d better fail in Parris Island, rather than in the field, when lives are on the line.
Vincent D’Onofrio also inhabits his role well: that of a helpless wide-eyed frog getting smashed to pulp by a baseball bat. After weeks of abuse, his eyes start changing, and the drill instructor thinks he’s finally taking instruction. Movie viewers, of course, are aware of dramatic arcs and might guess that something else is coming.
Later, when the protagonist Joker graduates boot camp and goes to Vietnam, the movie sort of loses the plot. It grinds out some new ideas and characters, but they’re not strongly developed. In the IMDB page, the top-voted quotations are overwhelmingly from the early scenes. Down the bottom you’ve got lines spoken in Vietnam by guys I don’t even remember being in the movie.
These scenes are tonally inconsistent. The part where Joker has to write propaganda (“we have a new directive from M.A.F. on this! In the future, in place of “search and destroy,” substitute the phrase “sweep and clear”!) is kind of funny, in a Dr Strangelove way. But the movie as a whole is not satire, and this scene doesn’t play nice with the darker stuff at the end of the film, which in turn doesn’t play well with a soldier having his wallet stolen by a wacky karate-chopping Vietnamese street gang.
A lot has been written about Vietnam, and the way it reflects the final falling away of Clauswitzian notions of war. No more battle lines. Your enemies dress like civilians. Your fellow soldiers behave barbarously. Up is down and left is right. You just want to escape, but even when you do, the war follows you home, haunting you. What’s it all for?
Kubrick’s film ends up confused, muddled, and existing just to exist. The perfect reflection of the Vietnam war, in other words.