After staring at my blinking cursor for the better part of the last hour and receiving a lovely missive from a reader asking, “Where the fuck is the Jarhead review?” I’m afraid I’m no closer to synthesizing what I want — or need — to say about Sam Mendes’ follow up to American Beauty and The Road to Perdition than I was after I walked out of the screening. It’s a difficult film to write about, mostly because it seems to say so much, without actually saying anything at all. It’s intentionally anti-message, which is perhaps the loudest message it could send, leaving us to figure out what the fuck Mendes meant by shoving a nonentity into a nothing war in which so very little happened. That Operation Desert Storm was the central military conflict for an entire generation just about says it all, I suppose: There was no real cause for which to fight, no patriot zeal to stir up, and no great enemy to defeat. Its participants fought a war over oil, nobody died, and goddammit, they didn’t even get to shoot their guns. It doesn’t exactly make for a great story to tell the grandchildren, does it?
Nevertheless, Mendes — working off of Anthony Swofford’s memoir, adapted for the screen by a former Marine, William Broyles, Jr. — manages to make us care, if not about the war, then the people involved in it. To do so, he had to create maybe the first war movie ever that didn’t rely heavily on stock “war movie” characters to give meaning to something greater than the sum of its soldiers. We’re talking about the first Gulf War here — there wasn’t anything greater, so to succeed, Mendes necessarily had to take an All Quiet on the Western Front humanistic approach, primarily in the form of Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) a semi-serious, detached scout/sniper who “got lost on his way to college,” and wound up in boot camp.
As Jarhead’s central character, Swofford acts mostly as an opaque observer, filtering to us the non-events of the lives of his fellow soldiers, who stand around, drink water, urinate, masturbate, and stand around some more, which is not exactly the material that great war movies are made of. Yet, Jarhead arguably qualifies, because it is the first of its kind to capture not what it’s like in the heat of battle but war’s testosterone-fueled sense of urgency — the feeling of having one’s shaky finger on the trigger, but with nothing to shoot at.
The movie starts out in boot camp, where Swofford is subjected to your run-of-the-mill Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant humiliations, met defiantly by Swofford’s resistance to the military mindset. It doesn’t take long, however, for him develop a taste for the military, its frattish camaraderie, and its inherent promise to make him a hero. As a member of the scout/sniper platoon led by Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), Swofford and his unit are soon sent off to Kuwait, where they expect to become a part of that next great cause, to die for their country, and put a stamp on the identity of their generation. Instead, they spend the next 160 days immersed in the mundane: They practice putting on their gas masks, they play football in the sand, and they await letters from wives and girlfriends back home, who — for the most part — have already found themselves new fuck buddies.
And when the conflict finally arrives, it lasts all of four days, barely enough time for the men in the unit get their gas masks on; it’s a bit like hearing the Notre Dame masses cheer for Rudy Ruetigger for half an hour only to see him ride the bench as the game clock expires. Indeed, Gulf War I pulls the ultimate cock-block, leaving half a million itchy-fingered soldiers with nothing to do but go home trophy-less, carrying only a heavy set of combat-fueled blue balls. Welcome to the Suck!
Yet, what’s remarkable about Jarhead is that Mendes is able to extract so much from so little, to divine meaning in a futile, purposeless exercise, and to do so without resorting to melodramatics — there are no epiphanic scenes, no waving of flags, no overwrought patriotic salutes, and — save for Naughty by Nature’s “O.P.P.” — no beat-you-over-the-head evocative, swelling music. It doesn’t have the poetry of The Thin Red Line, the grittiness of Platoon, the gut-wrenching verisimilitude of the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan, or the controversy of Apocalypse Now, but Jarhead is a war movie to be reckoned with, because it’s the first to successfully explore the psychological ramifications of a war that never was.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()