Director Sam Mendes delivers a full-blooded rendering of marine Anthony Swofford’s unvarnished meditation on war with a theatrically bound story that could work well as a stage play. With a script version (by screenwriter William Broyles Jr.) based on Swofford’s book of the same name, Mendes apprehends the character driven motivations of confusion, boredom, fear and self-loathing that torment a group of “every-soldiers” waiting for months in the Arabian desert for the Gulf War to begin so they can kill something, anything.
Jarhead candidly reveals the mental condition and attitudes of its participants without ever fetishizing or gamorizing violence. Practically all of the brutality we witness is of a psychological nature. “Once you go to war—you will always be at war,” is the film’s clear message.
It’s pointless to compare Jarhead with the host of late 20th century war genre classics that include Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Even David O. Russell’s Three Kings is off limits for resemblance because of the psychologically surgical way Jarhead allows its audience to realize its protagonist’s dilemmas that inform his transition into antagonist.
In Jake Gyllenhaal’s opening voice over introduction as Corporal Swoff, he stoically tells how a soldier’s relationship to his gun will forever infect every other activity he will use his hands for during the course of his life. Whether holding a woman in his arms, building a house or changing his baby’s diaper, his hands will always operate with the muscle memory of holding and firing a rifle.
Both Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter are referenced in Jarhead at different times and in different ways that acknowledge the social coin of those movies. An audience of recruits sings along to Wagner while watching Apocalypse Now, and energetically comment to one another about the strategy of the onscreen killing wherein helicopters fire on a tiny Vietnamese village.
These are bloodthirsty young men who perceive the violence of war movies as instructional to the way they will eventually kill an enemy that their commanders have objectified as murderous scum. A great irony of the movie is that the only murder we witness in Jarhead occurs during a training exercise where live ammunition is fired above the heads of recruits crawling on their bellies through mud and barbed wire.
Commanding officers refer to Saddam Hussein as “Saddam Insane” between the American soldiers’ perpetual rant of “Are we ever going to get to kill anyone?” The insanity at hand is more prosaic than the operatic kind we typically associate with despots or as it occurs in war films in the context of chaotic battle. Instead, we watch a group of soldiers obsessed with whom, and how, their wives or girlfriends are cheating when they aren’t taunting one another or inventing ways of forgetting where they are.
It is the summer of 1990, and third-generation enlistee Swoff is made a sniper by Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Fox) and partnered with Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), to serve as his scout, for the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon. For all of Swoff’s precise marksmanship and Troy’s levelheaded demeanor, both men will reveal tragic weaknesses under the snarling scrutiny of their job as soldiers during the six months that they wait for a chemical warfare battle that never arrives.
Through awkward interviews between the platoon and the media, near-fatal accidents, burning oil fires and grim visitations with corpses, Mendes shows the Gulf War from the ground. It’s not a view that most of us are familiar with due to the restricted American media that isn’t allowed to cover America’s wars since the disaster of Vietnam.
The anti-war polemic of Jarhead is carried in the subtext of every scene in the movie, but it’s never directly approached. When one soldier waxes political about the American government’s grab for oil, Troy says, “Fuck politics, we’re here.” He could just as easily have said, “If you’re so smart, then why are you a soldier?” Either way, the message is the same. MTW