Bush Senior’s Gulf War is the backdrop for Sam Mendes’s banal and insignificant Jarhead, which aims for the humor and political sensitivity of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and David O. Russell’s Three Kings but trips and falls on its adolescent head in the process. The film gives credence to the jock-boy mentality of its horned-up troops, whose collective experience is insensitively reduced to a preposterous and elaborately sustained ejaculation metaphor which tries to pass as a comment on the sometimes frustrating inaction of war. (The film would make an interesting double-bill with Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s more artful but no-less questionable two-hour menstruation parable Innocence, which also climaxes with a figurative sexual release.) Unlike the war films it references throughout, Jarhead has no genuine political consequence, mounting a view of military masculinity that deflects the comedic and moral nuance satires like Three Kings and M*A*S*H bravely and happily embrace. Given how strongly the film insists on striking its testosterone pose, Mendes might say he’s too cool for political thought.
No reason is given for why Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his fellow troops enlist in the Marines nor do the filmmakers feel their audience needs one. Anthony is asked about his family, namely his Vietnam veteran father, but he says little or nothing at all. Mendes’s astonishingly literal-minded visuals mirror this hesitancy and resistance via a series of dolly shots that pull out of snapshot-pretty tableaux of Anthony’s home life. As the camera exits the kitchen where his mother is crying and, then, a room where his father reads the morning paper, the closing doors of these rooms make clear that Mendes wants to cut off his audience from Anthony’s past. Rather than complicate the character, Mendes presents him as a blank slate who only wants to “get off”—if not exactly sexually then combatively on the war field. Anthony’s need sees no rationale—it’s just there, waiting to be intensified by his girlfriend’s letters, which suggest she might be cheating on him with another man.
Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter are watched by the troops at different points in the film. Both showings are unceremoniously interrupted—the first by a call to battle and the second by a marine’s wife, who has spliced footage of herself having sex with her next-door neighbor into the Michael Cimino film as a fuck-you to her husband. The troops’ zealous reaction to Apocalypse Now not only underlines their bloodlust but suggests a form of sexual asphyxiation; when they’re suddenly called to war, it’s as if the belts around their necks have been yanked loose. The second scenario is intriguing because the Marine’s wife contrives revenge against a husband for his own adultery by emasculating him in the presence of his buddies; it’s as if she’s interrupting a group orgy. This perpetual conflation of sex and war is not entirely uninteresting, but there’s no crucial political dimension to round out the correlations. Some will argue that because Jarhead is about a battalion’s frustrating wait for war that its lack of a political stance is appropriate, but that ignores the fact that inaction in times of war is itself a political and moral action, a choice Mendes clearly doesn’t want to deconstruct.
Jarhead is steeped in music from its time, like “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” and “Something In The Way.” These songs are used ironically and unimaginatively, but in one scene Mendes cleverly utilizes “Break On Through” by The Doors to stress an infantile Anthony’s desire to, again, “get off” (or, rather, shoot an Iraqi) and to only live in the present. Given this lazy attitude, you’d think Anthony would be more loathsome, except Mendes somehow manages to make him likeable (we’re meant to sympathize with his failure to jack off to a picture of his girlfriend inside a bathroom stall). He’s just a punk teenager who doesn’t know better—which is what a lot of troops are except this adolescent mentality of Anthony’s is never really up for debate. Gyllenhaal’s character remains a cipher, namely because the actor isn’t allowed to develop an expression beyond the comatose. When he walks into a patch of desert late in the film and beholds burnt bodies everywhere (it’s the closest Mendes comes to capturing an effortlessly mythic vision of a pillaged world), you get a vague idea that the young man is going through an awakening of some kind—but what he’s awakening from and to what spiritual plane he’s been elevated to is never clear.
The great thing about Three Kings is how O. Russell isn’t afraid to deal with race, using the antagonism between his characters to vibrantly reflect their manhood, brotherhood, and American values. Mendes’s Desert Storm drama is just a kumbaya sausage factory of high-jinks. It ignores everything but the libido of its characters. This is why we never actually see the conversation the troops have about trying to tell Mexicans and Cubans apart (we only hear about it via Anthony’s voiceover); that conversation is ostensibly too loaded for a film with such sheepish and middlebrow (read: Oscar) ambitions to truly chew on. More important to Mendes is repeatedly striking a parallel between Anthony and his buddy Troy’s (Peter Sarsgaard) obsessive need to kill someone and this idea of war as an excited phallus. Mendes thinks he’s keeping things personal by never invoking the political systems that tug on that phallus, but that Anthony and Troy never actually kill someone—in spite of their efforts—doesn’t even resonate as a comment on, say, the failure of the individual. Jarhead is just a juvenile war-as-dick metaphor that wants to leave it audience, like its characters, with a case of blue balls.