Stanley Kubrick is one of my favorite directors and this film really highlights why. I haven’t seen a better film explore the trauma that can come from war so in depth as this film does where the characters are fully realized flawed human beings and each choice has consequences that echo through the film. This film is a masterpiece and before I get into the details of what makes it so great, it is well worth checking out.
The film was directed, produced and written by Stanley Kubrick with the other writers being Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford. The film is also based off the story “The Short-Timers” by Gustav Hasford.
The story is told from the perspective of Private Joker. From his time in boot camp to being a military reporter in Vietnam and all the trauma and trials that unfold in both locations where he is.
The Pros: The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is powerful and some great rock songs were chosen to contrast some really terrible scenes. This rather than making scenes light lends power and irony to the images on the screen. Abigail Mead did a great job.
The Cinematography – The cinematography is stunning as we get some gruesome closeups of when characters are shot (showing just how horrifying this loss of life is) as well as the mystery of being under fire and losing friends, as we get at the end of the film. Douglas Milsome did a great job.
The Writing – The writing is amazing! I think the fact that Kubrick wrote the screenplay with Hasford, who wrote the original story is part of what makes it so good. It is a collaboration as each clearly had input in how the book went to screen. After this film I can’t wait to read the book.
The Characters – The characters are what drive the story as in in them we see the worst of humanity. From a gunner shooting running civilians and keeping track of all the people he kills for sport, to the Sergeant dehumanizing Pyle and later the other trainees doing the same…the world is shown in all it’s cruelty and just how bad people can be.
Eightball – Eightball is a side character who gets along well with the hot head Animal Mother. He’s a character who see isn’t afraid to talk down about himself or up as at one point he shows his dick to a Vietnamese prostitute (and the platoon) to show it is not too big. He ends up being used as bate by a sniper once he gets shot which pulls us into the final action of the film. Dorian Harewood does a good job.
Gomer Pyle – Pyle is the big guy who gets bullied in boot camp by the Sergeant and later his fellow trainees to the point that he snaps at the end. The guy we see is an awkward sensitive guy who loses his mind and starts talking to his gun and finally killing Hartman and himself. his story is the first tragedy we get as even though he made it into the army he lost himself completely in the process. Vincent D’Onofrio does an amazing job in this role.
Cowboy – Cowboy is the squad commander who seems to be in over his head. He does the best he can but you see he is just as young as all of them and powerless as his call for tank doesn’t go anywhere and it takes Animal Mother taking action for any actions to be resolved.
Animal Mother – Adam Baldwin (Jayne from “Firefly”) is great in this as the racist soldier full of bloodlust who just doesn’t care anymore. He reminds me a lot of The Comedian from “Watchmen,” as he is a nihilist who knows how stupid the situation he is in is so is only after pleasure and power. Though he does have some semblance of honor as he is the one who tries to rescue Eightball and the Medic showing that there is more to his character even though he has become so broken from everything.
Sergeant Hartman – Hartman is a bully and does a good job of turning the recruits into soldiers. He mocks everyone and is strict and goes to greater and greater lengths to turn all of them into soldiers, even if it means loss of humanity as it does for Pyle. He dies in the end though as the first thing Pyle does when he goes insane is to shoot him. R. Lee Ermey created and unforgettable character in this role and pretty much got typcast after this. He does the strict, no-nonsense military guy really well.
Private Joker – Matthew Modine plays Private Joker and it is through his eyes the story is told. In him we see a man who tries to embrace the duality of man as he is really supportive of Pyle but in the end joins in on the bullying which leads to Pyle’s mind breaking. We see this in wartime too as he has “Born to Kill” on his helmet, but a peace sign on his jacket. It is in this we see someone trying to do right in a world where that is punished and Joker isn’t courageous overall, he’s a coward and only really rises to the challenge when he has no other option. He is a good description and stand in for humanity, which makes him work really well. He is the tragedy of our darker nature and failure to stand up to bullies and wrong conflicts.
Boot Camp – Book camp is rough as Hartman starts things out dehumanizing the men and over the course of the film breaks them down into weapons to be used. This leads to Gomer breaking and killing him but he succeeds in that all the recruits got taken in to different branches of the military because of his success as weaponizing them.
Vietnam and the Interviews – Joker interviews the soldiers and we see how much they don’t care about the people they are supposed to be fighting for. From one posing with a dead Viet Cong soldier, to all the slurs towards the Vietnamese and the general apathy they all feel as each feels like their country has abandoned them to somewhere they never wanted to be.
The Finale – The finale is powerful as we have a Vietnamese girl take out Eightball, the medic and Cowboy before Joker helps take her out and in the end is the one to finish her off and speak to her wish of death being granted when Animal Mother just wants to let her suffer and get eaten by the rats. In this we get a glimpse of humanity just as our broken brotherhood of soldiers marching in the firey landscape is the closest thing to good that they have in the hell of war.
War is Hell – War is hell is another theme and we see this starkly in the finale where there is no one to help the troops as the sniper kills a bunch of them, and in the end they find the sniper is just a young girl who just wants to be finished off and shot as she’s suffering from being shot. Besides this you see it in how the soldiers smack talk the Vietnamese allies and how no one trusts anyone. The only thing people know is to kill so there isn’t a clear goal.
The Consequences of Dehumanization – We see the consequences of dehumanization countless time throughout the film. From the burning landscape of Vietnam, to Pyle losing his mind and in how our heroes treat the Vietnamese and to some degree one another. Everyone is out for themselves and is using others as they feel used. Each has been through trauma and been changed for the worse in the process.
There aren’t any cons that I can really describe for this film. It shows what abuse can do to the human mind and what war can do and it doesn’t let up. Our characters are human and flawed and we see them make choices that cost them their soul in different ways and we see our protagonist try to hold onto what little humanity he has left. The story is a powerful, drama and tragedy and once again Kubrick has created gold.
Final Score: 10 / 10