Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
William Broyles Jr, adapted from Anthony Swofford's original source material
Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard,
for pervasive language, some violent images, and strong sexual content
"...compelling in the way it presents a new facet of a genre that some
would argue was mined out long ago."
"Every war is different. Every war is the same." So
says the voiceover narration in the closing moments of Sam Mendes' Jarhead. I
might add: Every war movie is different. Every war movie is the same. This is
Mendes' Gulf War answer to Apocalypse Now - he announces as much by connecting
the two in an early scene showing marines whipped into a frenzy while watching
the helicopter attack sequence from Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film. Jarhead is
about how the experience of being in the military fundamentally changes an
individual. In this case, the focus isn't about the madness of slaughter in the
jungle, but the madness of inaction in the desert.
For those who don't remember the Gulf War (or who weren't old enough to watch in
unfold in real time on television), here's a brief recap. The conflict started
in August 1990, when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, igniting worldwide protests.
As diplomatic negotiations stagnated, United Nations troops (primarily from the
United States) massed in Saudi Arabia. By mid-January 1991, more than 500,000
U.S. men and women were in the Middle East, and "Operation Desert Shield" became
"Operation Desert Storm." More than a month of brutal pounding from the air
decimated the Iraqi forces. The ground war, launched on February 23, lasted only
four days (or, to be precise: four days, four hours, one minute). A ceasefire
was called on February 27, and Iraq accepted terms on March 3.
Jarhead shows these events not from the perspective of a civilian, war
correspondent, or diplomat, but from that of a jarhead (jargon for marine)
sniper who was supposed to be on the front line of the ground conflict - except
there was no front line. The air attack so devastated the Iraqi army that no one
was left to wage an effective battle. So when the marines went in, they were
left with mop-up duty. Many of these men, despite being trained as killing
machines, left without firing a shot. (As one puts it: "Are we ever going to get
to kill anyone?") Based on the memoirs of Anthony Swofford, Jarhead takes
viewers into the barracks and tents of a group of marines who view the conflict
as a phantom war - a tease that never offers release.
The film opens at Camp Pendleton in 1989 - a year before Kuwait became the lead
story of every nightly news program. There, Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal)
is undergoing a brutal basic training regimen under the tutelage of an officer
who recalls R. Lee Ermy's character from 1987's Full Metal Jacket. A year later,
Swoff is enrolled in sniper training along with his spotter, Troy (Peter
Sarsgaard), who would become his closest friend. Their commander, Sergeant Siek
(Jamie Foxx), is the kind of hard-but-fair solider who shows up in nearly every
war movie. In late 1990, Swoff's unit is sent to Iraq, where they spend months
drilling and finding ways to kill time, waiting for the word to be given for the
sword of American military might to fall. But the longer the finger is on the
trigger without firing the weapon, the greater the stress becomes.
Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) invests a great deal of energy into
developing the battleground as an alien environment. Using the sands of Mexico
as a stand-in, Jarhead shows how different desert warfare is from conventional
conflict. We see men training while wearing bulky anti-contamination suits in
100+ degree heat. Water must be downed in such quantities that vomiting
sometimes occurs. Finding ways to blow off steam leads to risky behavior, the
punishment for which can be the dreaded latrine duty. (If you thought it was bad
in Platoon, wait until you see it here…) The Kuwaiti desert comes alive in this
film, forming its own supporting character. There are some wonderful twilight
and nighttime shots that appear almost to have taken place on a different
planet. Cinematographer Roger Deakins uses handheld cameras effectively (but not
to motion sickness inducing excess). And, to strengthen the connection to
Apocalypse Now, Mendes has employed Walter Murch, who edited the earlier film.
It's unsurprising that Jarhead attains an impressive level of verisimilitude.
Although The USMC did not officially participate in the filming, Mendes hired an
army of ex-marine advisors who kept things real and avoided caricatures. This is
not a strongly political or anti-war film (certainly compared to pictures like
Apocalypse Now or Platoon). It's about the characters and how they react to
their circumstances. They see things within the microcosm of their tents. What
"it all means," whether the attack is justified, and whether the troops should
have pushed all the way to Baghdad are questions for other movies with other
Given the spotlight, Jake Gyllenhaal seizes the opportunity with a performance
that will generate Oscar buzz. His portrayal of Swoff is credible and complex.
Nothing in his development seems jarring or poorly motivated. Peter Sarsgaard
earns points for stepping out of the minor rut into which he had fallen. Jaime
Foxx makes a stock character more interesting that he might ordinarily be. Chris
Cooper has a small part as Lt. Col. Kazinski, and unsurprisingly steals the
scene. And Dennis Haysbert shows up a couple of times as a major. His first
appearance - the latrine scene - is memorable.
Like many war movies, Jarhead comes complete with a voiceover narrative. Despite
my general disapproval of this as a cinematic device (it's too often used as a
crutch), it succeeds for the most part. This is, after all, a memoir, and there
are times when it's helpful to provide viewers with information in a short-hand
manner that would be cumbersome to present in a traditional way. Apparently,
Mendes worked long and hard on the voiceovers - they are not distractions and
they do not pull the viewer "out of the moment."
Jarhead is compelling in the way it presents a new facet of a genre that some
would argue was mined out long ago. Yet, as much as the film contains the
familiar elements of war movies, the thrust is different. This is about loss,
but not the loss of life. Instead, it's about the dissipation of identity. Those
who entered the corps and were sent to Kuwait were disconnected from their
previous life and all that went with it: wives/girlfriends, friends, jobs,
families… But, instead of accomplishing what they were trained to do, they wait,
and Godot is nowhere to be found. Portraying these personality transformations
is where Jarhead excels, and the reason why this isn't just another of the
growing number of dramas about the Gulf War.
JARHEAD © 2005 Universal
All Rights Reserved
Review © 2009 Alternate Reality, Inc.
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS
"..It's about heroes, and how a country can need them so badly that it simply manufactures them." (JR)
"The Hurt Locker” is one of
the very best and most exciting war movies of any kind to come along in a long
"The beauty of this film is in its lapidary details, which sparkle with feeling and surprise." (JR)