by Mel Valentin
Directed by Sam Mendes ("The Road to Perdition," "American Beauty") and based on the best-selling memoir by U.S. Marine turned author, Anthony Swofford, "Jarhead" is an anti-anti-war film (which doesn’t make it a pro-war film), focusing not on war or combat per se, but on the a U.S. Marine Corps sniper team and the tedium- and frustration-filled months that led to one of the shortest wars on record, the four-day Persian Gulf War, where a United Nations-sponsored coalition led by the United States defeated Saddam Hussein. "Jarhead" plays the “war is absurd” theme, but offers few insights into modern warfare or the American soldiers who have to fight modern wars.The Marines here, “jarheads” (jarhead refers to the close-cropped haircut standard for Marines; it also refers to the apparent ability of the military to unscrew heads (and their contents) and refill them with new ideas), are immature, unsophisticated, and obsessed with sex (e.g., who’s getting it and with whom). In fact, the Marines seem to be a continuation of frat life by other means, complete with testosterone-fueled male posturing, masturbation (and masturbation jokes), casual use of obscenities, hazing, and humiliations, small and major, at every turn. What Jarhead doesn’t do is examine the political reasons, political or otherwise, for the first Persian Gulf War, with the exception of one scene, where a Marine’s extemporaneous critique of the first Bush administration is quickly silenced. Instead, we get the usual absurdities of men waiting to test themselves in war, the boredom, frustrations, homesickness, petty conflicts, the endless drills in the desert heat, and dick-swinging officers.
"Iraq? War? Nope, 'Jarhead's' about the First Gulf War."
Adapted for the screen by William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away, Apollo 13), Jarhead de-emphasizes Anthony Swofford's ((Jake Gyllenhaal) pre-military life, using a montage to briefly discuss his distant, Vietnam War veteran father, his distracted mother, his institutionalized sister, and his girlfriend, Kristina (Brianne Davis), who, thanks to Swofford's military career, exists mostly in Swofford's tormented dreams and masturbatory fantasies. The montage was most likely used to compress or otherwise eliminate sections from Swofford’s book in order to singularly focus on his military experience.
From there, Jarhead covers familiar ground, first making a stop in a Full Metal Jacket-lite boot camp, where a typically foul-mouthed drill instructor makes the sensitive, intelligent Swofford his "pet" project. Swofford's survives boot camp, but directionless, begins to question his commitment to the Corps. Enter tough but compassionate Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), a career Marine who leads a squad of scout/snipers. He asks Swofford to join his unit, who readily agrees. Swofford's first day leads to a hazing incident, but after an additional humiliation or two, Swofford graduates to full scout/sniper, partnering with Troy (Peter Sarsgaard).
Swofford's fellow Marines include Cortez (Jacob Vargas), a Latino born and raised in the United States proud to serve his country, Escobar (Laz Alonso), an immigrant turned citizen soldier, Kruger (Lucas Black), a Texan (and the only Marine with political views), Fergus (Brian Geraghty), an inexperienced, naive Kansan, and Fowler (Evan Jones), a Marine with sociopathic tendencies. All of them are seemingly eager to fight, to test themselves against the ideals of the U.S. Marine Corps.
The Marines, newly trained and ready, gather in an auditorium to watch (Apocalypse Now). It's one attempt among several to throw self-aware irony into the mix: the bitter irony found in an often parodied scene from Apocalypse Now where U.S. gunships strafe a peaceful Vietnamese village in order to clear the area for surfing (as a colonel, played by Robert Duvall, has the helicopter speakers spew out Wagner's "Ride of the Valkeries" to frighten the Vietnamese). The marines in Jarhead whoop and holler, evidently enjoying the onscreen destruction. Their lack of understanding or awareness is meant to signal the second irony (this time for the "real" audience, i.e., us).
The scout/snipers finally get their marching orders with the announcement of Operation Desert Shield, a six-month buildup of U.S. and international forces in Saudi Arabia meant to counterbalance Saddam Hussein’s million-strong army. The Marines are called into the desert first and over the next 172 days they sit and wait in the desert for the war to begin. The Marines grow increasingly restless and disheartened, with Swofford concerned about his girlfriend's faithfulness (he's not alone, as another Marine discovers when he shares a videotape of The Deer Hunter sent to him by his unhappy wife back home). The Marines manage to entertain themselves, culminating in a free-for-fall Christmas celebration, thanks to illicitly obtained alcohol (Swofford pays a heavy price, though, for his actions).
The war does come, but when it does, it happens so fast that the Marines are left behind the advancing front line (thanks to the U.S. Air Force), leaving the men untested. Swofford and Troy, however, are given the opportunity to put their sniping skills into action a day before the war ends. Jarhead concludes with a lazily scripted "where are they now" montage that ends with Swofford, now a civilian, reunited briefly with some of his comrades, followed by Swofford's interior monologue as he contemplates his military and wartimes experiences (presumably in anticipation of writing his memoirs).
Mendes and his director of photographer, Roger Deakins (The Village, A Beautiful Mind, The Man Who Wasn't There) shoot Jarhead with the now familiar bleached out film stock, but saves their best work for depicting the sights (and sounds) of the war itself, especially in the day and nighttime scenes of Kuwaiti oil fires (started by a retreating Iraqi army), the petrol rain that covers the men, and a scene where the Marines traverse a bombed-out stretch of highway filled with smoldering cars and the charred remains of dead Iraqis.
Performance wise, the three leads, Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, and Jamie Foxx all acquit themselves credibly, despite limited characterizations. We learn next to nothing about Sarsgaard, except one key fact about his past, and we learn that Foxx’s Sergeant Sykes has a family back home, but only late in the film. For these characters, their lives are the U.S. Marine Corps. The secondary characters fare worse, thanks to limited onscreen time or dialogue scenes that reveal only perfunctory information about them. It gives the actors attempting to fill in these roles a near impossible task: how to humanize men who, for the most part, act like unsupervised, hyperactive adolescents throughout most of the film.Ultimately, most viewers will be bored by the lack of onscreen action (much like Swofford and his fellow Marines) or frustrated by the limited, ground-level view of the First Gulf War and it’s seemingly tenuous link to the 2003 invasion and current occupation of Iraq. That war continues unabated, more than two and one-half years after the current president of the United States declared the end of “major combat operations.” Memoirs of soldiers who served in the current war in Iraq have and will continue to be written. How soon one of those memoirs becomes adapted into a feature film remains to be seen. As for a film on the First Persian Gulf, viewers need look no further than David O. Russell's "Three Kings."
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originally posted: 11/06/05 20:11:34