Full Metal Jacket (1987): A Kubrick Masterpiece Exploring the Trauma of War

Full Metal Jacket Poster

    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

The Shining (1980): Kubrick’s Masterpiece About a Haunting and Escape From Abuse

The Shining

   Stanley Kubrick is one of my favorite directors so seeing “The Shining” again was well worth it and I was reminded once more of all the reasons why he is a favorite director. I haven’t read the book that the film is based on but Stephen King hated this version of the film even though it is so far the best adaptation of his work…most of the other adaptations of his books are simply terrible. But who knows, Kubrick was never a likable guy so maybe that’s part of it. This is a film that captures so many elements of horror and makes me really want to read the book. I’ll go into the aspects of terror it captures later on in the review.

    The film was directed by Stanley Kubrick who also produced the film and wrote the screenplay with Diane Johnson. It is of course based on the book of the same name by Stephen King.

      The story is about a struggling writer named Jack (Jack Nicholson) who takes his family up to the Overlook Hotel so that he can be caretaker of it. He soon learns about the haunting history behind and as things begin to unravel it is up to his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to cope with the consequences of Jack and the Hotel.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The Soundtrack is wonderfully tense and keeps you on your feet the entire it. It turns mundane things into things that are off, whether it is writing a story or entering a maze. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind did a fantastic job.

The Cinematography – Kubrick knows how to shoot a scene and the use of the hotel’s size is used to create feelings of isolation. Kubrick also uses shadows and light in the maze for that same bit of terror and using stark contrasts throughout the film to accent loss of control or entering moments of the supernatural.

Film Structure – The structure of the film is great as we are shown Jack’s descent into madness as winter comes on the Overlook Hotel with the time period or time passed flashed after character moments.

The Writing – The writing is mostly show and not tell and that lends it power. We also see character moments revealed in this way too, Jack’s making excuses about hurting Danny only being one time reveal that no doubt had happened more…and the silence of characters reveal intent and action. Kubrick’s script is phenomenal.

The Characters – The main characters are all compelling in different ways and their relationships inform one another as many of them change over the course of the film.

Dick – Dick is the cook and also can communicate and sense things like Danny. He is Danny’s mentor and Danny reaches out for help. He is killed by Jack in the end but is able to deliver Danny and Wendy an escape vehicle to get away.

Danny – Danny is a kid who has a spirit named Tony inside who takes control sometimes and is the one who goes from a passive figure to one fighting for survival as he tricks his father in the maze and reaches out to Dick to save himself and his mom.

Wendy – Wendy’s arc is standing up to her abusive husband and escaping the relationship. In this we see that even though she seems passive that she will fight back and does so when she knocks Jack out and locks him up and later we see her stand up against the spirits even though she’s terrified as she makes the escape with her son. She’s an awesome character.

Jack – Jack is abusive and we soon realize how abusive as the story progresses. He is an antagonist who is complex in that he obviously is not a fully terrible human being, but at the end of the day he is the monster who lets his ego and selfishness control him and whatever ways he was horrible before become compounded as he becomes a force that the ghosts use to kill his family.

Escape From Abuse – Wendy and Danny are in an abusive relationship with Jack. It’s never stated outright but the moment of anger at Danny was shown to be a pattern based off his behavior in the hotel…as well as Wendy’s making excuses for him…it takes seeing Danny hurt again for her to finally stand up and after that she fights. She is no longer a victim but over the course of the film becomes a survivor of Jack’s abuse. She survived while the other family was not able to escape their abusive spouse/father.

The Mystery – The mystery is wonderful as we are left wondering if Jack crossed back in time when he was interacting with the ghosts and if he’d been at Overlook before that day. The nature of the Hotel and Jack are left open which gives power to future hauntings of the place.

What Makes a Good Ghost Story – Part of what makes a good ghost story is how it puts those living on edge and connects them to their mortality (Wendy and Danny’s escape) or their ego and selfishness (Jack). It is less about the ghosts in the end and more about what they make people do. This is a prime example of this as the point of evil spirits in horror stories is to reveal the darker side of the living.

   This is a film that has very little wrong with it. My only issue I could see with it is sometimes it lags, though I valued that time because it helped build suspense, but I’m also aware that not everyone is into the slow build. Besides that, this is one of Kubrick’s masterpieces for a reason and is well worth viewing for anyone who loves suspense, horror and cinema.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10

Spartacus (1960): What it Means to be Free


“When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” -Spartacus

“Spartacus,” directed by Stanley Kubrick is the Academy Award winning film about the slave who lead one of the largest rebellions against Rome, Spartacus.” The story goes into the politics of the senate and the life of the slaves while tying it into the current events going on at the time.

The current events I speak of are the Red Scare and the Blacklisting of supposed communist sympathizers. The screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted as was the author of the novel “Spartacus,” Howard Fast. These themes were worked into the novel as well as the screenplay (http://comptalk.fiu.edu/blacklist.htm).

Here is my assessment of the film:

The Pros: The cinematography – Is beautiful. Kubrick is able to capture the large scale movements of troops and also the small scale conversations between individuals or groups while keeping the scene active.

The Music – Is epic and reminded me very much of John Williams. Everything is big and though there are some off music moments (some strange violin pieces during love scenes) the rest achieves the scale and tone it needs.

The actors – Laurence Olivier is fantastic as Crassus and Kirk Douglas nails it as Spartacus. The rest of the supporting cast is good too and adds depth to their characters…from Gavin as Ceaser to Laughton as Gracchus. The actors are able to keep weaker scenes interesting.

The Theme – The theme of freedom as something worth dying for and what is worth living is the point of the story. Spartacus goes against enslaving the masters and so much of the problems and and corruption we see in the film is from ignoring this fact. Those in power wishing to dominate others and how it is an ongoing struggle. It is masterfully executed through the eyes of “Spartacus” and the corruption in Rome.

The story – It is fiction based off historical events but emphasis on fiction. The story of how Spartacus leads the slave rebellion begins when an African Slave in the arena attacks the masters present…which later leads to Sparatacus leading his own revolt in the arena and uniting the slaves and stopping their enslavement of the masters. It goes on to his love story with one of the slaves and their having a child as politics unfold in Rome and his slave rebellion is used as a tool for Gracchus versus Crassus for control of Rome and the senate with Ceaser as the deciding man.

The politics – There are lots of politics at play…from the pirates working with Crassus after getting paid off to turn against Sparatacus, from Gracchus getting Crassus’s man out of Rome to take on Spartacus, and Ceaser turning against Gracchus in order to unite Rome and joining forces with Crassus (and Crassus becoming Consul) and in the end to Gracchus freeing Sparatacus’s wife.

The characters – Are intriguing and three dimensional. Completely wrong morally in many cases (all the slave holders), but all are complicated and human. You see why Ceaser joins with Crassus, you get why Gracchus wants to take Crassus’s power and you get what drives Spartacus and why he doesn’t want to become like the masters. It is brilliantly written and the characters are all three dimensional…when they could have easily just become ideals and caricatures.

The time period: I find Roman History fascinating and love when artists (Directors, Studios, etc.) try to capture it on film. The characters and politics are such rich stories that are still relevant today and can teach us about ourselves.

Okay: The length – It doesn’t feel like it all the time but sometimes it does (I can see why they had an intermission in the film). “Spartacus” is over 3 hours long. In some ways this helps since the characters have time to be explored, but other times it feels like it takes too long to get the action started (the beginning is 5 minutes long at least of music, this before the movie even begins). I think shortening up in some areas like the battles and the introduction would have served the story better.

This is a film I would highly recommend. It isn’t Kubrick’s best film and I do think, “The Shining,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “The Killing” are better films, but this film is still great and worth a watch. It being considered one of the great classics is a well deserved title for this historical fiction that takes inspiration from the present  it was created in and can still be relevant today.

I give this film a 9 / 10.