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Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove: Kubrick’s War

Full Metal Jacket one

“It’s crazy how you can get yourself in a mess sometimes and not even be able to think about it with any sense and yet not be able to think about anything else” – Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick’s voice as a director and writer was so singular, so fitfully honest.  Every project seemed so richly influenced by him and the worlds he created. That world often floated somewhere between a cold brutal honesty and some kind of hyper-reality that’s uniquely his own. If you look at Kubrick’s relatively small, but no less inspiring, filmography, there are countless examples of bare examinations of human nature. Nowhere is that more obvious in his look at war and what it does to the human condition, first in the anti-war Paths of Glory, and then more prominently in Dr. Strangelove or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb and finally in Full Metal Jacket.

Dr. Strangelove is the darkest of black comedies–Kubrick called it a “nightmare comedy”–featuring an insane general (Sterling Hayden) putting the world on the path to nuclear destruction while his team frantically tries to stop the imminent war. On the surface, there is hardly a connection between the satirical Dr. Strangelove and Kubrick’s much later, more bruising Full Metal Jacket. His use of satire in Dr. Strangelove seems to highlight the pain and stupidity found in indecision.

Dr. Strangelove

Where Dr. Strangelove is a funny, startling comedy, Full Metal Jacket seems almost the exact opposite in everything from tone to execution. Full Metal Jacket is at its core a story about dehumanization. The film primarily follows Marine recruit Joker (Matthew Modine) from his days in training to his life after deployment to Vietnam. Slowly, and through various ways, he watches the collapse and changes to his fellow recruits and by the end of the film, he has become similarly detached.

Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s co-producer, was once quoted as saying, “While his films are all very different from each other, there is something that connects them all, and that is a very serious look at human nature, at human frailty.” That fragility seems to be the thread between Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove. While they have their fundamental differences, they are essentially similar because of how they examine very human flaws. War, at least in Kubrick’s hands, is the stage he uses to highlight pain. This is especially true in Full Metal Jacket. A careful viewing of both films will reveal that Kubrick is less interested in images of war–though both films do include such sights–and more about a tonal depiction.

Just like the Kubrick quote at the top of this article, about no longer recognizing the world you live in, Full Metal Jacket is full of men brainwashed, forced into situations they couldn’t control and that they didn’t recognize. The film highlights those hopeless situations and what happens when that hits them head on, like Joker’s murder of the female sniper at the end. Dr. Strangelove is more focused on the men who control those moments or that nothingness found in the Marines in Full Metal Jacket.

Full Metal Jacket two

There are varying reasons for these differences; perhaps it was just because Kubrick approached the stories differently. It also could have been his age: Kubrick was 59 when he directed Full Metal Jacket, and 36 when he directed Dr. Strangelove. The best filmmakers grow and mature with each of their films. While all of Kubrick’s films have singular styles, each have vast differences. A more obvious reason could be that they were simply made at different times. Dr. Strangelove was made in response to a nation terrified of the prospect of nuclear war, of the Cold War. Full Metal Jacket, made only 12 years after the fall of Saigon, is just as cynical as Dr. Strangelove but is bare and more challenging. It’s clearly a film driven by a man, a culture that’s been exhausted and is still angry but is now more aware and weary.

Stanley Kubrick’s approach as a filmmaker was totally unique. With Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, he tackled the cruelty and loss found in war from two different angles, satire and bold-faced honesty. For his efforts both stand as two of his finest pieces of work.   

— Tressa Eckermann


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