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.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, biopic, war

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