Friday, December 17, 2010

Full Metal Jacket -- duality of man

Director: Stanley Kubrick, 1987. (R)

Overshadowed by Oliver Stone's Oscar-winner Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket explores the impacts of war and the duality of man. The title is explained at the midpoint by Private Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio): "Seven-six-two millimeter. Full metal jacket." Up until this point, the raw recruits have used blanks for their drills. Now they are ready to go live, and their rifles use this caliber of ammo. And it has a copper coating covering the lead core of the bullets -- the full metal jacket. But are they really ready for the horrors they will face in Viet Nam?

Kubrick's film plays in two segments, cemented together by Pyle's line. The first segment focuses on boot camp at Paris Island. The new draftees meet their sadistic drill sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey). Originally hired as a consultant having been a drill instructor in real life, Kubrick was won over by Ermey's cuss-laden monologue showing how to do it. On-set Kubrick removed the actor intended to play the sergeant and replaced him by Ermey. And it was an inspired idea, as Ermey dominates the first act with his macho message and abuse of the privates.

In the first interaction Sgt Hartman dehumanizes the men by giving them new names that point to ugly characteristics he sees in them. Privates Joker (Matthew Modine) and Pyle form the heartbeat of boot camp. Joker is indeed a joker, but one who thinks. He joined up to be the first on his block with a confirmed kill. Pyle is half-brained farmer who is slow to learn and whose fitness is in question. His love of donuts exacerbates the problem. Hartman assigns Joker to be Pyle's mentor, but then punishes the whole platoon when Pyle makes mistakes. In doing so, he makes Pyle the brunt of the platoon's frustrations, and they take it out on him with an act of midnight brutality. In a key scene, Joker wants to avoid hurting his mentee and retain some of his humanity, but his fellow soldiers exert peer-pressure and Joker has to choose. And he does: he participates in the brutality.

This moment defines the paths of Joker and Pyle. Afterwards, Pyle focuses on getting fit and learning to fight. But his spark of humanity is gone. Hartman has won. Pyle becomes a machine, ready to run, shoot and kill. Boot camp training has had its desired impact. Even Joker has changed.

The second segment begins with Joker in Nam, outside the war zone. The first interaction between him, a fellow soldier, and a prostitute paints a picture of the situation. The locals see the G.I.s as opportunities: either to make a quick buck or to steal from them. They are not the liberating heroes they were in Europe twenty years earlier.

Assigned to the "Stars and Stripes" propaganda machine as a journalist, Joker laments that he is not in the action. He signed up to shoot gooks not pics. When the NVC attack during the tet ceasefire, he gets his opportunity. As part of the tet offensive campaign, Joker and Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) are sent forward to join Joker's former platoon. It is there that they meet Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), a powerful charismatic leader who challenges the authority of Cowboy (Arliss Howard), a battlefield sergeant.

Like boot camp, the war itself has a traumatizing impact on the grunt soldiers at the forefront of the violence. The anti-war nature of this film is summed up by one soldier: "These are great days we are living in bros. We are jolly green giants, walking the Earth with guns. These people we wasted today are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we're gonna miss not having anyone around that's worth shooting." They have been brainwashed by boot camp and by combat experience. Now their desire is to kill other human beings.

Some wars are just. Augustine pointed this out over a thousand years ago. But some are not. Viet Nam was one that America lost, and perhaps should not have fought in the first place. Yet, all wars have an impact of the combatants. They emerge, if they do emerge, different. Having taken life, life is not the same for them. When they return as heroes they may be able to handle this change. When they come back under scorn as invaders, this trauma may be too much. The system has failed them.

Full Metal Jacket highlights the nature of man. In Nam Joker sports an unusual adornment to his uniform, and one Colonel points this out: "You write 'Born to Kill' on your helmet and you wear a peace button. What's that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?" Joker replies, "I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir?"

Joker's ironic ornamentation points to the truth of human nature. We want peace. (And followers of Jesus can experience the true inner peace that he promised to leave with his disciples -- Jn. 14:27.) But we can turn into killers given the right circumstances and provocation. The army trained Joker and his compadres to be killers. But each of us has the capacity latent within to do likewise. We all have felt that rush of blood as anger rears its ugly head. As anger turns to wrath, we sometimes lose control and say things, even do things, we regret. Most homicides in America are the result of domestic violence, crimes of passion. Like Cain (Gen. 4:8), we are born with a fallen nature that predisposes us to sin (Jer. 17:9). Apart from the restraining influence of society's laws and judicial punishments, we could and maybe would kill.

At the end one soldier comments, "I am alive." Ultimately in war, this becomes the paramount goal. Soldiers may be trained to kill, but their inherent desire is to live. Life on this planet is fleeting at best. True life and real peace come only through Jesus. Brainwashed by the drill sergeants in our lives, we can nevertheless cast them aside and choose to follow Christ. He is the one who said, "I am the way, the truth and the life" (Jn. 14:6). When the ammo becomes live, will we look for peace or succumb to the killing nature?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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