The controversy surrounding Jarhead, a hotly anticipated movie dealing with the 1991 Gulf War, seems rather misplaced. Some argued it would be anti-American, anti-war, anti-Marines, and on the other side of the coin, some even argued that it would be pro-war and pro-aggression. Now the movie seems to be taking flak for not being too political. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) is interested in crafting a movie about the soldiers, a true first-person war. I was actually very pleased, and somewhat relieved, that Jarhead didn’t try to bend over backwards and make any forced parallels to our current Gulf War conundrum. When you’re arguing about whether a movie leans right or left then perhaps the movie stands tall on its own, and Jarhead stands very tall indeed.
Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a “jarhead” the nickname for Marines because of what their heads resemble after their sheering, but it’s also indicative of a vessel, ready to be filled with knowledge. Swofford says he entered the corps because he “got lost on the way to college.” He’s humiliated, beaten, and looking for a way out when Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) offers (more like orders him) to try out for the elite position of Marine snipers. It’s during this new training regiment that Swofford becomes “hooked” on being all he can be. He’s partnered with his barrack buddy Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), who serves as Swofford’s moral anchor. The boys get their hopes up when they catch the news that Iraq has invaded Kuwait. They’re shipped out to the action and are finally going to get a taste of combat … or so they think. They spend months in the Saudi desert amongst 114 degree heat and interminable boredom. They drink water, they play football in their gas suits for the cameras, they goof off, but mostly they wait. And wait. And wait. When the war does finally come into being, any action is short-lived: “Four days, four hours, one minute. That was my war.” Swofford, Troy, and his fellow Marines are aching for some kind of combat, any kind of violence that they’re physically and mentally breaking down in the monotony.
Even the safety nets in previous war films, like the chickadee at home waiting for you, are ripped away in Jarhead. Usually the life at home is a source of release for movie soldiers, but in Jarhead it’s just one more source of mounting anxiety. The men have a Wall of Shame with pictures of ex-wives and girlfriends who have left them or cheated on them.
The acting on display is tremendous. Gyllenhaal (The Day After Tomorrow[) gives a sensational performance that should turn him into a bona fide, A-list leading man. All at once he can display fraternal bravado, closeted fear, confusion, and dulled horror. His show stopping moment is when he’s amidst a mental breakdown and turns a rifle on a comrade and then on himself, pleading that a shot be taken. The scene is a powder keg of intensity and Gyllenhaal is utterly captivating, startling, and horrifying with every teeth-grinding second. What?’ even better is that his performance doesn’t stop when the camera isn’t centered on his beautiful baby-eyes. He draws stronger performances out of those around him, and he does it quietly with confidence. He masks his fear and does so in fascinating, layered ways. Performances like this are what Oscars are for. And for any Jake fans out there, yes he does show a good bit of flesh in the film.
Foxx (Ray) breathes fiery life into what otherwise could have been a stock character, the tough love drill sergeant. He’s given much more screen time than I had ever thought and makes the most of it. Sarsgaard (Garden State) is a steely, dependable shoulder of support in the film, and his own big breakdown scene is amazing to witness. He?s so close to a kill but is overruled by the military brass, and Sarsgaard just lets everything go. It’s incredible. Chris Cooper (Adaptation) and even Dennis Haysbert, 24‘s president Palmer himself, have brief but very memorable small turns.
The cinematography by Roger Deakins (replacing Mendes previous Oscar-winning collaborator, the late great Conrad Hall) is gorgeous and uses light and shadow in remarkable ways to convey the turmoil of the soldiers and the other-worldliness of the desert. There are scenes amongst the lit oil fields that look like some alien world. It’s a perfect visual representation of how alone these men are and how ill-equipped they are for that scenario. The camerawork beautifully echoes the emptiness of their surroundings. Jarhead should easily score a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Deakins (House of Sand and Fog).
Jarhead is really an analysis of the psychology of what it takes to go to war. There is a transformation process, where young boys get stripped down and turned into killing machines. Jarhead poses a central question: what happens when you create the ultimate killing machine and give it nothing to do? Essentially, these men are breaking down in the tedium and many will be broken for the rest of their lives. A very poignant scene comes late in the film during their triumphant bus ride home. A Vietnam vet hops on to cheer his fellow Marines and in his hazy jingoism, you see how haunted and broken this man is from his own war experiences decades past. The future is staring them right in the face. Swofford opens and closes the film with narration explaining that once a man holds a rifle in combat, no matter what else he does in his life his hands will feel that rifle. These are men trained for war and adjusting to everyday life where the only war resides inside. Jarhead is a monstrously powerful study on the lasting effects of turning young men into monsters of combat.
Jarhead‘s inherently anticlimactic nature works against it, which will cause some level of disconnect with an audience. This is a very loosely structured flick about delayed gratification with no payoff. That’s not exactly a recipe for success. Jarhead is essentially the Waiting for Godot of war movies. The film is about monotony, about inaction, and the movie achieves a surprising yet palpable tension simply from drawing the viewer along for so far. In lesser hands a movie about boredom would still be boring, but Mendes brings an unprecedented art to it. Mendes has a confidant vision and the technical skill to bring out the drama of boredom. Jarhead has a deadpan sense of humor and some very sobering moments, like when Swofford comes across the remains of a traffic jam caught in napalm. These killing machines are getting rusty and will come back home without ever getting to pull a trigger, and what does that do to a man? These are important questions and Mendes is interested in answering them at a pace that still serves his characters. I love that Mendes has directed three films that are wildly different from one another. In my view, this guy is three-for-three.
Jarhead is no Full Metal Jacket and yet Mendes gives passing nods to Vietnam and how our culture has shaped its history. The Marines watch Apocalypse Now and cheer as helicopters mow down villages set to a thundering soundtrack by Wagner. They’ve completely missed the point of one of the most anti-war films ever, transforming it into a bloodlust ritual. When Mendes reaches the desert then Jarhead becomes a war movie unlike any other. It’s a war movie without a war, sort of. All wee see are the results, both external and internal.
In a way, Jarhead is all about transformations and transitions, one of which is the Gulf War itself. This was arguably the first made-for-TV war and viewers were amazed at the green-tinted images of explosions and military might. War had been brought into the video game age where what once took months on the ground could be accomplished by pushing a button. Jarhead shows you the side of the Desert Shield/Storm that never made it to the cameras. The movie also presents some of the more obscured details of the war, like the care for and disposal of human waste from outhouses. That stuff never made CNN. Jarhead shows, very quietly and somberly, that sometimes the soldiers who return home have still been left behind.
Jarhead is an intense, sobering, evocative, and deeply contemplative film about the psychology of turning young men into killers and then leaving them with nothing to do. The inherent anticlimactic nature will likely push some audiences away while others will simply find it tedious. Mendes’ direction is strong and confidant and able to squeeze drama and tension from inaction, crafting an existential war movie that feels relevant and profound. Gyllenhaal is amazing and utterly captivating; you can’t take your eyes off him and, for many out there, a certain strategically located Santa hat. This movie isn’t anti-America, anti-troops, or even anti-war for that matter. Jarhead tells us that all wars are different and all wars are the same. We know war is hell, but for some, the absence of war is an even greater hell.
Nate’s Grade: B+