Sunday, November 13, 2005

Review: Jarhead

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx
Directed by Sam Mendes

"Some wars are unavoidable and need well be fought, but this doesn’t erase warfare’s waste. Sorry, we must say to the mothers whose sons will die horribly. This will never end. Sorry."
— Anthony Swofford

There are two fundamental truths about war movies. The first is that they’re rarely about the war depicted in the story. Filmmakers tell stories about a specific war because it’s easier that way to tell stories about war itself, or about other, more current, battles. After all, no really thinks M*A*S*H is about Korea, and for all it’s bench-setting regarding the tone of war stories the past few years, even Saving Private Ryan was more about the pain of fighting than the places they fought. This brings us to the second truth, which is really more of a question: Are war movies ever about war at all? Sometimes.

The best war movies are anti-war movies, its true, because the best war movies are really about the people involved, and about the families they create in the middle of death in hopes of hanging onto some semblance of the people they used to be, before they had to worry about everything from mustard gas to IEDs. The war is the story’s catalyst, not its heart.

Sam Mendes’ Jarhead dips its feet in both streams. It's a movie about a war and a story about the burned-out young men who went there. Some critics have decried the story, based on the memoir of the same name by Anthony Swofford, a lance corporal in the Marines’ scout/sniper platoon, of being ambivalent about the conflict portrayed in the film, Operations Desert Shield and Storm, and about the importance of Gulf War I as the sequel begins to head even further south. But "ambivalence" isn’t really accurate; a better term would be "dichotomy." It's a thin, gray line to be sure, but a necessary one. The former implies an apathy toward the situation, a lack of commitment to an opinion or course of action, but the latter paints a clearer picture of just what these soldiers, many barely 20 years old, went through: a simultaneous hatred of the war and a desire to viciously kill the enemy; of a need to escape and the want to keep fighting; of a prayer for their impossible salvation and a praise for their inevitable damnation.

Swofford's memoir is a powerful one, about a smart and conflicted young man, and could only have come from someone so genuinely torn (Swof, as his fellow soldiers call him, could often be found reading Camus while his fellow Marines swapped skin mags). Played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Swofford is a mess of confused emotions, like that proverbial bowl of fishhooks, a young man who wants to kill and is terrified of being in the Desert. In other words, the ideal 20-year-old.

After joining up with the Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA) Platoon to become a sniper, Swofford becomes hooked on the idea of raining down the sniper’s death from afar on unsuspecting Iraqis. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait triggers the Marines' trip to the Gulf, and it’s in the prolonged second act that Mendes' film turns from one of eager young fighters into a story of reluctant killers, frightened of the bloodlust they feel but unable and, more important, unwilling to do anything to curb it.

Because this is the sick irony of Swofford’s story: After they arrive in the Desert, he and his comrades do nothing but train for months. Stranded in the sand for weeks with nothing to shoot at and no one to fight, Swofford begins to slip toward the edge of sanity faster than you can say "Bruce Dern at the end of Coming Home."

But this just comes with the territory when you’re a man among men. Mendes’ film does a good job capturing the latent homoerotic undertones that seem to find their way into everything from the armed forces to organized athletics to fraternity pledging (trust me). In an attempt to embarrass their leader, Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), when their platoon is being interviewed by a New York Times reporter, the men all dogpile after a football game. After Swofford sounds the call, they begin to half disrobe and mimic a wide variety of sexual positions and acts right there in the sand. Sykes quickly steers the reporter back to a Humvee, and though the soldiers are punished later for their foolishness, it’s obvious they don’t regret a moment of it. The truth of the matter is that men, when grouped, are capable of blinding stupidities, and Swofford is no different. "We created a circus," he says of the atmosphere among the men, "as if it would protect us. And we were insane to think that."

Before shipping out, the Marines watch the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene from Apocalypse Now, cheering and screaming in ecstasy as Vietnamese villages are napalmed out of existence. It’s a fascinating scene, because Coppola’s near-perfect epic was edited by Walter Murch, who also edited Jarhead. Responsible for shaping one of the most powerful films to deal with the Vietnam war, he has now cut together an equally important story about the next generation of soldiers wherein they watch his earlier film. In an era where all fiction has become metafiction by default, it makes perfect sense. Their fathers’ war comes up again later: Upon hearing someone’s stereo blasting The Doors, Swofford complains, "This is Vietnam music. Can’t we have our own music?"

Finally, after four months of repetitive training, Swofford finally engages the enemy for a grand total of four days before the war ends. He and his comrades are robbed of the chance to kill anything, and their inability to consummate their bloodlust on the battlefield almost breaks them, and their impotence to do anything about their increasingly maddening situation shows up in an uncomfortable but stunning scene of sexual frustration involving Swof and a photo of his girlfriend. Forced to train with no goal, now forced to fight against an enemy that isn’t there. But this missed opportunity is a benefit in the long run. As bloodless as his war might have been, Swofford still never manages to leave it. As he writes in the book, "The most complex and dangerous conflicts, the most harrowing operations, and the most deadly wars, occur in the head."

Mendes and director of photography Roger Deakins capture the washed-out desert and soldiers in camo without sacrificing color. Indeed, there are some genuinely amazing shots here, beautiful ones, as when Swofford and crew are walking through burning Kuwaiti oil fields at night, and the fire and oil falling from the sky make it look as if they're slowly marching through their very own hell. Mendes also reteams here with composer Thomas Newman, who scored the director's phenomenal feature debut, American Beauty. Newman seemed to be a one-note music man a few years ago, copying his own breezy sound in Pay It Forward. But his score here is emotional without being overpowering, always using the sounds to complement the action, not subdue it. Gyllenhaal's performance is searing, and this could be the thing that deservingly catapults him from cult hero to the public eye. Jamie Foxx, solid enough but often overhyped, turns in a reliable performance, and Peter Sarsgaard does what he always does: work so well in the background that his fellow performers are elevated.

Ultimately, Jarhead isn't about the first Gulf War, or about Gulf War Redux. As Swof's fellow sniper Troy (Sarsgaard) says, "We've got a job to do"; politics barely enters into it. This may seem unthinkable to the current war’s gung-ho supporters or its most ardent opponents, but extremist politics rarely make it to the front line. Swofford wasn’t there because he loved the war; it's just what he did. The United States' obvious oil interests in the Middle East are mentioned several times to the men, but there's not much outrage expressed. It’s as good a reason for war as any, they reckon, if they bother to ask for a reason at all. The hell of it is, most don’t. They're made to kill, and they want a mission; when they’re given one, it’s not for their sins, but because they asked politely. Like I said, it's a dichotomy. And Mendes does a superb job of recording that. The men don't want to go, but they do; they don't want to die, but they will. And all we can do about it, all we can ever do about it, is hear one man's story.


Hadn't planned on seeing the movie, but after reading your review I just might.

By Blogger fried-neurons, at 3:23 AM, November 14, 2005  

wouldn't everything in the world be so much more amusing if all the c's in the english language were replaced with k's (besides the soft c's, which would be replaced with s's). then we could have words like popsikkle and konundrum synikal to laugh at.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:28 PM, November 15, 2005  

and kritik. but then to replace "ch" you'd have to do something like "tsh"

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:31 PM, November 15, 2005  

tshutney. hmm.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:36 PM, November 15, 2005  

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