In the mesmerizing opening segment of Stanley Kubrick’s film, a tough and abusive drill sergeant (Lee Ermey) is attempting to mold a group of Marine recruits into savage fighting men. His message is simple: thinking is a vice and killing is a virtue. Unlike most of his peers, Private Joker (Matthew Modine) resists the programming. In the second half of the film, however, Joker is a combat correspondent for Stars and Stripes and is forced into battle following the Tet offensives. In the blitzed city of Hue, his values are put to the ultimate test.

Stanley Kubrick (Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove) has a reputation for powerful, provocative filmmaking that cuts to the quick of the matter. Here with a surgeon’s tongs, he holds up the malignancies of the Vietnam War for all to contemplate. The screenplay by Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford has a buckshot quality to it that conveys the disorder and lunatic violence of this conflagration.

Albert Camus once urged that men be neither victims nor executioners. This film shows how in Vietnam, American soldiers were both.