Archive for November 2005


November 23, 2005

ht_clooney_syriana_060124_sshIf you take anything away from Syriana, it might be this: Global dependence on oil is insanely complex, guided by shady deals and murky violence, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Except, perhaps, to make a convoluted Oscar-chasing holiday movie about it. Syriana was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who seems to have risen to grab the crown of Hollywood’s Political Truth-Teller that Oliver Stone dropped long ago. The problem is that Gaghan, whose screenplay for the similarly conscientious and overpopulated Traffic won an Oscar, lacks Stone’s skill at marshalling great chunks of data and dozens of characters and forging a rousing masterpiece (see JFK). Gaghan needed either an extra hour (ideally, an eight-episode HBO series) or fewer characters. Syriana probes a significant subject but treats its people as mere stick figures carrying exposition from place to place.

Who, for instance, is Bob Barnes? As played by a husky, bearded George Clooney, Bob is a loyal if exhausted CIA veteran, a flabby moth flying too close to the flame. Bob tells the truth about the Middle East, but the people in power have too much at stake in the oil fields. Bob is loosely based on the actual retired CIA agent Robert Baer, who, in his current status as film critic, has praised Syriana‘s “accuracy.” Maybe so, but I’d hate to think Baer in real life is as colorless as Bob Barnes is written. Clooney, an old hand at casual masculine authority, does what he can to make Bob interesting, but the character is little more than a martyr.

A prominent Texas oil company loses its gas-drilling bid in the Middle East to the Chinese. Another company cozies up to Kazakhstan and wins drilling rights there. The two companies merge, and various people — the powerful and powerless, their motives often far from clear — buzz around the money. The talk (a lot of it) in Syriana is very obscure and knowing; Gaghan does catch the way powerful men must address each other across glass tables or over cigars. The movie acknowledges the ambition of younger players like Matt Damon’s energy analyst (who turns a personal tragedy into a cash register), Jeffrey Wright’s Washington attorney (who keeps having to go home to his sourly disapproving dad), and Alexander Siddig’s shrewd Prince Nasir (who’s willing to do business as long as military occupation isn’t in the contract).

The saturnine Alexander Siddig, projecting mystery and intelligence, steals the film. But his character is as ill-defined as any other. We meet two laid-off Pakistani field workers (Mazhar Munir and Sonnell Dadral) who fall under the thrall of an Egyptian and become suicide bombers, and Gaghan obviously means them to be two of the many threads that make up the huge codependent web of oil mastery (violence in Gulf nations keeps the political hot potato rolling and is good for business). But their story could be a movie in itself, and the scrap of screen time they get isn’t enough for Gaghan to develop a plausible shift from hard-luck guys to terrorists. Everyone else labors under the movie’s weight, too — Matt Damon’s family-man character seems to capitalize on his tragic loss within minutes of the funeral, and poor Amanda Peet, as his wife, has nothing to do except look stricken. (She doesn’t even get a great “I know you’re an asshole but I’m staying with you because the lifestyle is worth it” speech like the one she skewered Ben Affleck with in Changing Lanes.)

Like Traffic, Syriana is aimed at the middle-aged, upper-middle-class white audience and structured as a position paper: This is why you should care about The War on Drugs or Our Dependence on Oil. Also like Traffic, the movie — liberal as it tries to be — draws on xenophobia. In Traffic, the sucker-punch message was that if drugs aren’t decriminalized, your white daughter will sleep with black men. Syriana says that if we don’t kick our oil addiction, our corporations and politicians will hop into bed (figuratively) with swarthy, corrupt Arabs. And both end up saying that the problem is too big for you to solve, anyway, so you might as well go home and hug your kids. Gaghan wants credit for merely pointing out the problem. Duly noted. In that spirit — and in the truth-telling spirit of Bob Barnes — I must point out that Gaghan, however well-intentioned, is better suited to writing op-eds than to crafting movies with characters we can care about.

The Ice Harvest

November 23, 2005


Headed for box-office oblivion after a tenth-place opening during a busy Thanksgiving weekend, The Ice Harvest is the best movie this year nobody’s seen. With any justice it’ll rally on DVD and find a new life as a moody film noir cult film — which is what it is, despite the slapstick-heavy ads. The movie finds John Cusack back in morally tenuous territory after too long in romantic-comedy hell; true, Cusack was once the prince of romcom, with Say Anything as his crown, but he has aged (can he really be pushing forty now?) and gained complexity, and he should never again have to stare longingly into a leading lady’s eyes unless he’s just shot her or been shot by her. He’s meant for darker, more astringent stuff now — The Grifters pointed the way, Grosse Pointe Blank sealed the deal — so The Ice Harvest is excellent news.

Cusack is Charlie Arglist, resigned to his lucrative if soul-deadening gig as a mob lawyer. A mob lawyer in Wichita, Kansas, yet. Are there even any mobsters in Wichita? Apparently so, and they’re as slovenly as you’d expect — even lower-level wannabes like Spider in GoodFellas would sneer at these mooks. Charlie has lifted some serious cash from one of Kansas’ illustrious crime bosses — Bill Guerrard, played by Randy Quaid with a welcome sense of menace after too many, well, Randy Quaid roles. Charlie’s partner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton in yet another finely tuned dyspeptic-scummy performance), who sells porno, had the idea for the theft but not the means to carry it out; he needed Charlie, trusted by the mob and presumably allowed access to strip-club backroom vaults where $2 million might be stashed.

The Ice Harvest puts itself to bed within a short, sharp 88 minutes, yet it takes its time, pausing to soak in the depressed atmosphere weighed down, as in The Ice Storm, by freezing rain. (The two movies would make fun companions, as both concern repressed passions — for cash, for sex — that heat up when the weather outside is frightful.) Director Harold Ramis has previously shown a knack for dialogue and for working with comic actors, but until now I pegged him as a styleless director. Working with cinematographer Alar Kivilo (who shot the equally frosty A Simple Plan), Ramis discovers the gun-metal-blue despair of a town on its uppers (the movie was actually shot in Illinois). Men like Charlie, or like his soused buddy Pete (Oliver Platt, going over the top of caricature into real pathos), stare at themselves in dingy mirrors in bars and wonder how they got where they are. Will money fix it? No, but it might ease the pain.

You may have gathered that the movie is not a laugh-fest. It was sold as such, but what you take with you are the unstressed crime-does-not-pay moments that emerge from action rather than speeches — a bad man sinking in freezing water under the weight of his wife; a character shuffling uncomfortably on a foot he’s just pulled a knife out of; the general malaise of strip clubs with bruised strippers and femmes fatales like Renata (Connie Nielsen), who owns one such club and keeps herself going — or perhaps amused — by hoarding embarrassing photos of hypocritical local politicians performing non-Christian acts with the paid talent. The Ice Harvest, though, has an eye-opening pedigree (novelist Richard Russo and Oscar-winning writer/director Robert Benton — who adapted Russo’s Nobody’s Fool — are the screenwriters, working from Scott Phillips’ acclaimed 2000 novel), and the movie is more about the failed humans in this web than about the clever weave of the web itself.

Cusack, effortlessly projecting decency even in this squalid environment, gives Charlie enough self-aware wit to recognize how far and how cheaply he’s sold himself out. He grounds The Ice Harvest in identifiable reality; Charlie is too smart not to see the sewer he’s swimming in, but too depressed to respond to the crime around him with anything but more crime. The movie, thank God, is not one of those twist-ending-for-its-own-sake thrillers, or one of those Tarantino clones pitting quirkily violent men against each other without having Tarantino’s sense of irony. It has its own cold heartbeat. If that appeals to you, I suggest you give The Ice Harvest a rental, because when a lot of you tell me you want intelligent movies made by adults for adults, you’re asking for movies like this one.

Walk the Line

November 18, 2005

WalkTheLine_1Johnny Cash was a giant — a myth (partly of his own making) — and Walk the Line reduces him to just a man. Some of Cash’s fans may take issue with that, but it’s something that Cash himself, who stripped his sound way down in his final decade, might have approved of. In Walk the Line, John R. Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) is revealed as a country boy with deep self-esteem problems: for instance, he has the Stand by Me scene where his perfect older brother dies and his father rails at God for “taking the wrong son.” John just wants to play music, like the Carter Family on the radio, especially that cute little June Carter. He starts out as a fumbling gospel singer at a time when gospel is on the way out and the axis of rhythm & blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and country are taking over music. Luckily he has his own tune to fall back on, “Folsom Prison Blues” — taken not from hard experience but from a newsreel he saw in the Air Force.

By demythologizing Cash, and taking him so far into self-abnegation that June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) even says “Maybe you should take credit for something,” Walk the Line paradoxically restores the great man’s larger-than-life aura. It was hard work to become “Johnny Cash,” the man who seemed to run against all popular wisdom and come out bigger than ever — releasing a live prison album when nobody thought it would sell; covering Nine Inch Nails in his twilight years, when most singers his age would’ve been happy to sit back and cash the royalty checks. Joaquin Phoenix gets Cash’s early insecurity — he was an original because, frankly, he sucked at being like anyone else. When we first see him perform “Folsom Prison Blues” for record-label honcho Sam Phillips, Phoenix’s Cash begins shakily but gains power and confidence. It’s a primal finding-your-voice moment that reminded me of Kurt Russell blissfully laying down “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in John Carpenter’s Elvis, which this movie most resembles.

The movie, executive-produced by John Carter Cash (the only child of Johnny and June), is structured as a love story between two entertainers married to other people who don’t appreciate their artistry. Cash’s first wife (Ginnifer Goodwin) is drawn as an unimaginative woman who just wants John to go into her daddy’s business. She has a point: he’s got a child to feed and another on the way, and his gospel career is going nowhere. But success soon comes, and with it the by-now-clichéd temptations of sex and drugs. Cash gets hooked on amphetamines and barbiturates, introduced to him by some of the bad boys in his circle. (Some of them include Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison; the movie is particularly fine at capturing a confusing moment in pop culture, before rock and country definitively went separate ways.)

What John needs is an equal, someone who won’t say yes to him all the time, and he finds his redemption in June Carter (Witherspoon hasn’t been this vibrant in years). She’s a perky princess in a family of country-music royalty; he’s the strange proto-goth with dirt under his fingernails and beer on his breath. Nobody wants them together; even June isn’t sure. But John pursues her over the years, and she is touched by how strenuously he works to make himself worthy of her. Our knowledge that their union lasted 35 years, until her death in 2003 and his death four months later, helps fill in the blanks left by a sometimes too-respectful, son-approved script.

Walk the Line is a sturdily conventional biopic, directed with no special touches by James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted; Cop Land). The concert scenes, with Phoenix and Witherspoon providing their own capable vocals, are just this side of electrifying — Mangold doesn’t have time to let the performances build. We get a triumphant rendition of “Cocaine Blues” at Folsom, but we don’t get his San Quentin appearance, with his legendary reading of “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell,” which on the live album gets an audience response unlike any other you’ll hear. Walk the Line tames Cash a little, and provides no insight into why he would write a fabled lyric like “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.” Phoenix’s mercurial performance, less cool than hot-blooded, tells us some of it, and there are moments when you can honestly see how Phoenix’s Cash could age into the towering oak tree who cut 1994’s American Recordings and, at age 62, became a bad-ass for a whole new generation. 4


November 11, 2005

derailed_060222032414684_wideweb__300x294What is the RZA doing playing a mailroom worker in the low-rent Miramax leftover Derailed? Either with his Wu Tang Clan or by himself, RZA is one of the cooler musicians around, especially his atmospheric soundtracks for Kill Bill and Ghost Dog. Yet here he is as a mailroom schlep named Winston. While we’re on the subject of wasted talent, what’s Tom Conti doing in this? Fans of his work in movies like Saving Grace and Reuben, Reuben twenty years ago might want to see him in Derailed if they want to get depressed at how much fat and gray hair he’s gained. Oh yeah, and Clive Owen? Jennifer Aniston? Vincent Cassel? These are not untalented people.

I meander because I’m putting off the actual review. Derailed is my least favorite kind of movie to write about, because there’s so little I’m allowed to write about without treading into spoiler territory. I can set it up for you: Owen plays an exhausted family man (his daughter is very ill with diabetes) who encounters Aniston on his train to work. They are both married; she is lonely all the time because hubby is either working or golfing. She seems like a good way for him to stop thinking about his problems for a while. Which turns out to be true — he gains all new problems. The couple impulsively select a dingy hotel for their first tryst, and their foreplay is rudely interrupted by a mugger played by Vincent Cassel, the French actor who specializes in violent men who don’t give a lot of thought to their actions. Cassel steals the lovers’ money, pistol-whips Owen, and rapes Aniston.

Things get worse for Owen, as they always do in such thrillers. He can’t go to the police. He can’t tell his wife. He can’t do much of anything except capitulate when Cassel blackmails him into shaking loose $10,000, then $100,000. And, dear God, he’s been saving that money for seven years for his sick daughter’s experimental diabetes medicine! At some point I wished Owen were in Sin City again and could just shove Cassel’s head into a toilet. I know Owen is trying to show some range, and he was fine in the nonviolent drama Closer, where he still had a bit of a snarl in his voice. Here he’s pretty much a wimp in the mold of Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs, the kind of wimp who must implausibly turn the tables on his brutal nemesis by the end of the movie.

Vincent Cassel almost saves the film, especially when he pays a surprise visit to Owen’s house, posing as one of his clients, and puts on a respectable show of manners for Owen’s clueless wife. His evil is at least fun to watch. I can’t say as much for Jennifer Aniston, who has been trying a bit too hard to shake off the whole comedy thing post-Friends. She’s highly appealing within certain parameters, but there’s a lot here she just can’t pull off. In her final scene she’s utterly blank, perhaps suggesting that she doesn’t really understand what she’s playing — or really doesn’t like it. To say more, again, would venture into the land of spoilers.

Derailed is the American debut of Mikael Håfström, a Swedish director of various horror films. He gets the drab tone of Chicago, the movie’s constantly rainy setting, and he sets up a decent shock when a character exits the movie rather prematurely. But one of Håfström’s favorite gimmicks here — to lay in an ominous thud on the soundtrack whenever Cassel gives Owen an unwanted phone call — is repeated just enough to become laughable. Screenwriter Stuart Beattie, whose Collateral is a much better example of the form, starts off well with sly-verging-on-shy banter between the lovers, but then he brings in tired elements like a homicide cop (Giancarlo Esposito, and, man, he got old) who starts hounding Owen after a murder. Talent is involved everywhere in Derailed, and it all gets trashed in the final reel for the sake of teasing and then appeasing a bored November audience.

Ellie Parker

November 11, 2005

20300645Not too long ago, only Nicole Kidman and fans of 1995’s Tank Girl would even have recognized Naomi Watts on the street. Today, of course, she’s the Oscar-nominated It Girl who got to step into the shoes of Fay Wray and Nanako Matsushima. So what does it take to get from Children of the Corn IV to King Kong? Watts’ labor of love Ellie Parker provides the answer, if little else.

As played by Watts, Ellie is an Aussie transplant howling in the banal wilderness of Hollywood, trudging through one insipid audition after another. A neurotic with the prerequisite jerky boyfriend, Ellie seems baffled by the idea that being an actress means nobody wants you for yourself. Yet there she is, gamely trying on accents and outfits while driving on the freeway, all for the privilege of spewing her guts in front of blasé casting agents. Acting is hell. Auditioning is hell. L.A. is hell.

The movie isn’t hell, though it functions as pretty much a demo tape for Naomi. At one point in Watts’ career, of course, Ellie Parker was a short film that premiered at Sundance in early 2001, before Mulholland Drive (with its own memorable audition scene) officially put Watts on the Actresses to Watch list. At that point, the short film reflected Watts’ own reality. Expanded to feature length by its original writer-director Scott Coffey, Ellie Parker reads less as a calling card than as Watts’ bid for indie cred in the year of Kong.

Some of the details are funny — a Method acting class that encourages the hapless students to regress and behave like animals seems like an extension of the institutionalized humiliation of struggling actors. A cameo appearance by a big movie star moonlighting as a rock musician subtly underlines the unconscious pomposity of those who make it big and then yearn for obscurity (even though his band probably wouldn’t get many gigs if it didn’t have an A-list star in it). Chevy Chase does achieve indie cred in a short, sharp bit as Ellie’s agent, who seems to look at Ellie and see fifty past, present and future clients just like her.

Ellie says she can’t remember why she wanted to be an actress in the first place. We don’t know either, really. Watts doesn’t quite allow Ellie to be as smart (or as talented) as Watts must be in real life. Ellie is the cautionary, alternate-universe Naomi Watts who has yet to be hired by David Lynch for a doomed ABC series that will become a cult film. From what we see, Ellie just isn’t that great — she metamorphoses impressively, but so do most of the competition. What Ellie isn’t allowed is the intensity and intimacy that Watts’ Betty showed in her audition scene in Mulholland Drive. If Ellie does have the right stuff, she’s never given the role (or the audience) that would bring it out of her. Her tipping point is when she must audition for a bunch of stoned Eurotrash “producers.”

I’m sure that Watts’ impulse to revisit this cathartic piece four years after she herself broke through was a generous one, a show of kindred feeling for her acting sisters who are still plugging along like Ellie. But it’s a bit like watching Meryl Streep doing an impersonation of a hack actress in Postcards from the Edge — it’s a bit disingenuous, and it’s tough to forget who we’re watching. Undignified gags like barfing up blue ice cream and fishing around in a dumpster don’t help much. At times we can’t tell whether Ellie is meant to be admired for her persistence or ridiculed for the same.

Watts fans will, of course, want to see Ellie Parker regardless of what I or anyone else say about it. On a basic level, it does remind us that the scream queen and heavy dramatic actress can also do comedy. It’s worth a look for her alone, though the very people most likely to seek it out will also know that she’s better than the actress she’s playing — and, frankly, better than the material.

The Wild Blue Yonder

November 8, 2005

If you’re a fan of Koyaanisqatsi and The Man Who Fell to Earth, you might just find yourself among the small but appreciative cult for Werner Herzog’s The Wild Blue Yonder. The movie uses NASA footage, underwater footage, and Brad Dourif footage, and it’s a toss-up which footage is most otherworldly.

Dourif is pretty much an alien anyway — any day now I expect him and Crispin Glover to hold a press conference sternly announcing their plans for planet Earth, communicating perhaps with their feet — and here he plays one, a lonely son of Andromeda who landed here decades ago with his compatriots. Andromeda was dying, so they came here hoping to build the ideal colony: a shopping mall. Years later, after the Roswell discovery, humans use “chaotic portals” to journey to Andromeda, whose atmosphere is made up of liquid helium. Anguished and coiled with frustration, Dourif talks to the camera, pacing against a barren midwestern backdrop dotted with the occasional truck or discarded couch.

I don’t know quite what Werner Herzog has been smoking all these decades, but more directors need to be smoking it. Herzog seems incapable of making anything that isn’t a Werner Herzog film in big bold letters; there are no Hollywood larks in his portfolio, no quickie thrillers or remakes. All his films tend to be both events and poems, with man’s arrogant, uneasy relationship to nature as their connective tissue. The Wild Blue Yonder gives us minutes on end of rather banal footage of astronauts in white tube socks floating around a space shuttle, wedded to Ernst Reijseger’s mournful cello and Mola Sylla’s ecstatic vocals. After a few minutes you begin to meditate on exactly how miraculous it is that we can be watching astronauts in white tube socks floating around a space shuttle. In its stubborn sidewise way, the movie restores genuine awe to the science-fiction genre.

Herzog uses much of the footage somewhat prankishly, showing us early attempts at flight and telling us it’s secret footage of early Andromedan landings on Earth. We enter into a shared agreement to accept the movie’s strange representational reality — The Wild Blue Yonder occupies some obscure territory between mockumentary and speculative essay. Footage of Henry Kaiser’s diving expedition in Antarctica stands in for our astronauts’ exploration of Andromeda, with its bizarre wriggling creatures “not shown the proper respect” by the dismissive adventurers, Dourif sneers. For all we know, we’re watching footage of some guy picking through squid remains as Dourif says this. In the movie’s reality, we feel sad and offended on behalf of the squid-remains-looking Andromedan life being batted aside so that the astronauts can scout for good shopping-mall locations.

The Wild Blue Yonder is a mesmerizing curiosity. It combines transcendent outer-space footage with talking-heads scenes of two physicists drawing up velocity formulas that I found incomprehensible but somehow beautiful. Herzog’s “science-fiction fantasy” speaks of the death of worlds but, like the best sci-fi, manages to look outward and inward at the same time. One possible reading of the film might cast Dourif the bitter alien as simply a delusional human who’s constructed an elaborate alternate history. I prefer to think he’s really an alien, though — Brad Dourif, that is, not his character; I’d like to think that this is a documentary and Herzog got Dourif to out himself as an Andromedan who dabbled in film acting for a while.

Take the Nestea plunge into this one with open senses. Like 2001 and The Fountain, it will give back to you depending on how much you bring to it; it will tweak your perceptions for a while, and if you’re in the mood for a slightly poky meditation on far-flung adventure — Werner Herzog’s Star Wars, if you will — buy the ticket and take the ride.


November 7, 2005

fuck_huntersthompsonIt begins with a voiceless labiodental fricative, like a whisper, like someone trying to get into your pants. That’s followed by an almost sexual near-open central vowel. And it’s sealed with the brusque finality of the unaspirated voiceless velar plosive. Beautiful, isn’t it? Ffffffff … uhhhh … cccckkkkk.

So there’s a whole movie about it, unsurprisingly named after it, and there’s a good deal of amusement to be had from knowing that people like Alan Keyes, Michael Medved, Pat Boone, Judith “Miss Manners” Martin, and various other prissy cultural watchdogs had to go home and tell their significant others what they did that day: “Oh, I was interviewed for this new documentary called…” Well, of course they wouldn’t say it.

Many others do. Billy Connolly enunciates it with guttural relish, claiming it as the first word ever to emerge from the primordial slime. Alanis Morissette tosses it off casually. Kevin Smith talks about saying it in front of his daughter (and the film uses examples from two of his flicks). The word is heard in one form or another more than 800 times in 90 minutes, and after a while it becomes abstract. Then again, if you’re going to be horrified by hearing it that many times, chances are you’re not watching this movie.

This isn’t really a documentary so much as a celebration — of one word’s power to twist people in knots. Lenny Bruce is represented as the guru of free dirty speech; George Carlin rates a segment devoted to his act, particularly the iconic “Seven Dirty Words” bit, but oddly he doesn’t participate in the documentary proper (perhaps because, in the clips of him in concert, he says pretty much everything he has to say on the matter). The word has a long lineage, and Drew Carey pretty much nails it when he says it’s a word only the lower-class people use — you know, those people. Permutations of it arose from the ghetto, adopted widely by soldiers in various wars and then brought home, like shrapnel lodged in their vocabularies. Carey and other commentators like Ice-T and Chuck D. make the case that objection to the word can be classist and racist. And of course women aren’t supposed to say it — so you’ve got sexism in there as well. If not for Lenny Bruce there wouldn’t be The Vagina Monologues (excuse me, The Hoo-Haa Monologues).

The movie traces the slow insinuation of street language into prime time; Steven Bochco talks about the frank vocab in NYPD Blue (I always pegged Bochco as someone who was all about what he could get away with, though), and David Milch defends the incessant cussing on Deadwood as a signifier that the usual rules don’t apply here. (What he doesn’t say is that nobody actually talked like that in the Wild West; they stuck to “blasphemous” things like, y’know, taking the Lord’s name in vain, but Milch had to find an equivalent to make the point that the outbursts of those outlaws, considered quaint today, would’ve been foul and shocking back then — hence the hammering use of modern profanity. Janeane Garofalo amuses with her yeah-whatever response to Deadwood‘s verbal violence: “You’re not TV, you’re HBO, okay, we get it.”)

Is the word destructive or creative? The movie clearly falls on the free-speech side. If you go after Larry Flynt, you go after all of us; that was Flynt’s argument when Jerry Falwell tried to take him to the cleaners. Well, the movie makes the case that this word is the Larry Flynt of the English language. You may not like it, you may not say it, you may actually be a little tired of hearing it used in movies out of sheer laziness (if you’re going to cuss, do it with style and a point), but if it gets banished, what word is next? The culture has coarsened quite a bit over the last forty years, and, as with everything else, sometimes it’s liberating and fun, and sometimes it’s just coarse junk.

The movie favors expression over repression, suppression, and oppression. It’s an easy position to take, and again the only people likely to watch the film are those predisposed to agree with it. That’s what makes the movie fun for the converted but not, I think, as important as it would like to be. Besides, in a world where our president and vice-president use the word freely, and practice it figuratively on our country and others, there are bigger fish to fry.


November 4, 2005

Jarhead2Anthony Swofford is here to tell us that war is hell even without the war. In his 2003 Gulf War memoir Jarhead, Swofford wove an entertaining yarn about him and his fellow Marines sitting out in the sand, waiting for exhilarating and ennobling combat that, for them, never came. Swofford’s account is compelling despite the lack of war in his war story, because he’s an insightful narrator, placing you inside the heads of men high on their own testosterone, werewolves howling for blood. Jarhead is about what happens when they don’t get blood. What does the warrior do without a war to fight? What happens to all his gruelling training, designed to turn him into a ruthless and efficient life-taker?

Following this anti-narrative, the movie Jarhead is bound to disappoint those who want it to be a rousing let’s-get-the-Iraqis epic and those who want it to be a clearcut horrors-of-war cautionary tale. It exists aside from politics. Its Marines are men who joined up, even the youngest of them, well before Saddam showed predatory intentions towards Kuwait. Despite its setting, it doesn’t have much to do with the current war. One of the soldiers grouses that they’re only there to protect corporate oil interests, only to be told that it doesn’t matter — they’re here, they go where they’re sent, it’s part of the job description. Later, soldiers are told exactly what positive sound-bites to spout to visiting reporters, and when a couple of the men balk at this “censorship,” their staff sergeant (Jamie Foxx) reminds them, in effect, that the Corps owns their asses.

Thus, Jarhead is only anti-anything insofar as it’s honest about the experience of becoming a cog in a machine. As a depressive riff on Generation X’s first war (there’s an odd dream sequence set to Nirvana’s mopey “Something in the Way”), it’s exceptionally well-crafted. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) seems smitten with the subject of American disillusionment and its attendant melancholia. A despairing family man, a betrayed hit man, and now an eager young warrior thwarted in his desire to fight for his country — Mendes is building himself quite the menagerie of emotionally stunted men for whom violence solves little. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swofford with all the soulful torment he showed in Donnie Darko, somehow seeming sensitive even as he’s baying for war and hooting along with the Wagner chopper-attack sequence in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. (I can’t blame him there; the sequence remains one of the most complexly electrifying ever filmed.)

The movie spends some time looking back on previous war films, not just Apocalypse but The Deer Hunter and (in its opening boot-camp scenes) Full Metal Jacket. It makes sense, though, because these are the films that Swofford and his fellow grunts grew up with; they’re part of what guided them into the service. When Swofford and his team of elite snipers arrive in the desert, though, they’re given no outlet for their aggression. For them — if not for other Gulf War vets whose stories lie outside this movie’s margins — the war becomes an extension of their sexual discontent. They waste many hours drinking, goofing around, obsessing about their possibly unfaithful girlfriends back home, and taking the matter of their immediate urges into their own hands. The Corps itself becomes a frigid girlfriend who won’t put out after the elaborate cocktease of boot camp. Some of the men (including Swofford) go nuts from boredom, if only temporarily. Others, like Swofford’s spotter and buddy Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), seem to have it together but might be less squared-away than they let on.

The theme of Jarhead is not war but denial and frustration. The climax is an absurdist anti-climax: Swofford finally gets orders to look through his sniper scope at an actual enemy. If he gets to pull the trigger, he’ll finally be a true Marine; he’ll also become a killer, something a man can never un-become. Marines, of course, are trained to kill, not to clean out desert latrines or get drenched in oil, both of which indignities we see Swofford and the others suffer. Many war movies are about scared soldiers who don’t want to kill, but only kill when they have to. Jarhead is about the soldiers who want to kill — who saw those movies and fell for the feral glamour of combat. They don’t know they’re in a whole different kind of movie.