Director Stanley Kubrick takes a shot at the much covered hellish experience of grunt soldiers in Vietnam, and the horrors they either witness or cause themselves. Starring Matthew Modine as Pvt. Joker, a military journalist who experiences the strong dehumanizing effects of the war on its soldiers from boot camp to the jungles itself. Declared strongly by many as one of the greatest war films ever made, it doesn’t really delve into any uncharted territory of any of the other banner Vietnam movies of the time.
Pvt. Joker spends the first half of the film in boot camp under the savage direction of the humerous Gny. Sgt. Hartman (Lee Ermey), who seems to gain personal pleasure in treating Joker and the other recruits like less than dogs while training them to be ruthless killers, and nothing more. In a remarkable performance, Vincent D’Onofrio portrays Pvt. Pyle, an overweight and seemingly mentally challenged recruit, singled-out and picked on by Hartman, as well as his fellow recruits. After graduation, Pyle snaps and murders Hartman before killing himself, both in front of Joker, who then is shipped off to Vietnam as a journalist for Stars and Stripes. Joker has emerged from the war, to this point, with a sense of ironic detachment, wearing both a peace-sign pin and the words “Born to Kill” on his helmet.
The film suceeds in displaying the horrors of this particular war, but not in any special or original way. Like all the movies that take place in this time period, the movie is less about heroism and more about the utter confusion and sense of betrayal felt by the common soldiers stuck fighting a useless war, and seemingly abandoned by there government back home. Soldiers sit between battles complaining about almost everything and looking for Vietnamese girls to get frisky with. After the Vietnamese launch the Tet offensive, Joker joins a squadron of cynical veterans (including Adam Baldwin) as they seek out and destroy enemy posts in the city of Hue. Joker and the others are unwittingly transformed into mindless, gleeful killers as they fight to stay alive in the savage Vietnamese landscape. In a rare standout moment of horror, Joker is travelling on a U.S. chopper as a gunner is senselessly gunning down civilian women and children. The gunner looks to Joker and proclaims, “If they run, they’re V.C. Anyone that stands still is a well-disciplined V.C. You outta do a story about me!”
Kubrick does a marvelous job of setting up the recruits, and Joker in particular in the first half of the film, and follows it with an admirable portrayal of this costly war in the second half with some remarkably shot battle sequences. An enjoyale movie, but far from the best movie from the time period. The film doesn’t contain the pure senseless terror or raw emotion of “Apocalypse Now”, nor does it have the stand out performances or the drama of “The Deer Hunter” or the savageness of “Platoon.” No, Kubrick’s film is smaller, in its way, and for that lets be grateful.