Modine, Matthew

Modine, Matthew
(1959– )
   Matthew Modine, the actor who portrayed Private Joker in FULL METAL JACKET (1987), was born in Loma Linda, California, on March 22, 1959. He and his six brothers and sisters were raised in Utah, where his father was manager of a drive-in theater. He went to New York at age 18 to study at the Actors Studio with Stella Adler. While trying to break into the film business, he started out acting on TV commercials and soap operas. His earliest film roles included two pictures that dealt with the Vietnam War: Robert Altman’s Streamers (1983) and Alan Parker’s Birdy (1984), in which he played an emotionally unstable veteran. STANLEY KUBRICK picked him to act the role of the wisecracking marine recruit in Full Metal Jacket. In Full Metal Jacket, Modine plays Private James Davis, nicknamed Private Joker, a military journalist during the Vietnam War who participates in the hostilities at the front with his fellow marines when the occasion demands. Three of Modine’s older brothers and one of his sisters served in Vietnam, so he was interested in playing the part.
   Modine told Susan Linfield that he was impressed with how Kubrick grounded the film in reality. “Everything that happens in Full Metal Jacket exists. The boot camp sequence,” which accounts for the first 45 minutes of the movie, “is probably the most realistic portrayal of boot camp in the Marines that has ever been put on film, with the exception of a training film shot at Parris Island,” the location of the Marine Training Center. Modine understood Kubrick’s concept of presenting the boot camp scenes with unvarnished realism, he told critic Caryn James: “You’re taught your whole life not to hurt other people, not to kill other people”; but at Marine boot camp,“those rules suddenly don’t apply anymore. ” MARIO FALSETTO asserts that Full Metal Jacket argues that, “given enough time, training, and ideological conditioning, everyone contains the potential for extreme violence”; Joker is no exception to the rule. By film’s end, he has exterminated a female sniper—it is his first kill, but, one assumes, not his last. Modine explained, “The reason that Stanley’s stories are shocking is because they’re so truthful. He doesn’t try to create some sympathy for somebody because it’s a film, because he wants to win the audience over. ”
   Thus Joker “has so many contradictions; that’s what I think is great about the film,” Modine continued. “ When you watch it, you don’t know who to cheer for. You want to live in a world of peace, but if you scrape the veneer a little bit and get into man’s psyche, he becomes an animal; there’s a beast just beneath this thin façade of peace. ” On this point, Falsetto mentions a telling moment in the movie, while Joker is serving his tour of duty in Vietnam. When Joker “tries to explain to an aggressive officer why he wears a peace-symbol button and has the words ‘Born to Kill’ scrawled on his helmet,” Joker says that it has something to do with the duality of man. “The notion that opposite traits make up human nature,” Falsetto opines, “is central to Kubrick’s world view. ”
   Joker expresses his conflicted feelings about the marines’ role in the Vietnam War during a scene in which a documentary film crew interviews members of his squad. Joker, Falsetto notes, lives up to his nickname by giving the most flippant response to the interviewer. He says he looked forward to coming to Vietnam because “I wanted to see exotic Vietnam, the jewel of Southeast Asia. I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture-and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill. ”
   Like LOLITA and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Full Metal Jacket uses a voice-over narration by the film’s protagonist; in this case, Private Joker, who speaks lines brought over from the GUSTAV HASFORD novel, THE SHORT-TIMERS, from which the film was derived. Consequently, the filmgoer to some degree views events through his eyes. This makes him an abiding presence in the movie, and as a result the movie builds a relationship between him and the viewer. Joker’s reflections on the sound track reveal, among other things, his attitude toward his fellow recruits: “They are ready to eat their own guts and ask for seconds. The Marine Corps does not want robots. The Marine Corps wants to build indestructible men. Men without fear. ” Near the close of the picture, Joker’s transformation into such a fearless man is complete, as he states flatly in his last voice-over, after he has gotten his first confirmed kill:“I am in a world of shit, yes; but I am alive. And I am not afraid. ” In short, Full Metal Jacket chronicles the metamorphosis of Joker from an innocent recruit in boot camp into a trained killer at the front.
   In speaking afterward about working with Kubrick, Modine affirmed in VINCENT LOBRUTTO’s book that Kubrick “is probably the most heartfelt person I ever met. It’s hard for him, being from the Bronx with that neighborhood mentality, and he tries to cover it up. Right underneath that veneer is a very loving, conscientious man, who doesn’t like pain, who doesn’t like to see humans suffering or animals suffering. I was really surprised by the man. ”
   After Full Metal Jacket, Modine had some more good parts; for example, as the inept FBI agent in Married to the Mob (1988), the young landlord bedeviled by a psychotic tenant in John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights (1990), and in other films. His career suffered a severe setback, however, when he appeared in Cutthroat Island (1995), a film which was a huge financial failure. In the wake of that debacle Modine had to settle for parts in films of no great consequence, such as the role of a failed actor who is also a jerk in The Real Blonde (1997). His trio of Vietnam films, most especially Full Metal Jacket, represent his best work in the cinema.
   ■ Bizony, Piers, 2001: Filming the Future (London: Aurum Press, 2000);
   ■ Clines, Frances, “Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War,” in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, ed. Gene Phillips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), pp. 171+;
   ■ Falsetto, Mario, Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis (Westport, Conn. : Praeger, 1994);
   ■ James, Caryn, “Matthew Modine Plots the Course to Character,” New York Times, September 27, 1987;
   ■ LoBrutto, Vincent, Stanley Kubrick:A Biography (New York: Da Capo, 1999).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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