This is the second of two New York Press reviews republished in conjunction with CultureSnob’s “Misunderstood Blog-a-thon,” which concludes today. I’m including it because I think it meets the event’s criteria more exactly than my Perdition piece (scroll down or click here), which was more of a baseline aesthetic defense of a movie I thought was generally underrated. Jarhead is more ambitious, edgier and much more schematic than Perdition, and given its goal—to be what I call an “epic meta-war movie”—it cannot, by definition, satisfy audiences in any of the usual ways. But that’s what I like about it.
The Gulf War movie Jarhead is fundamentally unsatisfying, but it’s hard to imagine how it could be anything else, because its subject is disappointment. The locus of disappointment is a modern soldier (likeable but dull Jake Gyllenhaal), who joined the Marines because he wanted to experience the horrendous spectacle of real war but ended up ghost walking through virtual war instead. Adapted from Anthony Swofford’s memoir, and directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition), the movie earns points for being true to its source. But that fidelity is not likely to satisfy anyone, because Jarhead isn’t a pro-war or anti-war movie, or even a flat-out war movie from the perspective of a kid who knows war is hell but still wants to feel it. This is an epic meta-war movie, in which the contemporary infantry soldier’s experience is viewed through the prism of (and then judged against) all the war movies he has seen.
These warriors want the orgasmic release of mechanized carnage, but they don’t get it because Gulf War I turns out to be an air war, a TV war. Anthony “Swoff” Swofford (Gyllenhaal) trains to be a sniper, hoping he’ll get a chance to actually go into battle and cap a few people. (“I wanted the pink mist,” he muses in voiceover, hitting bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye on a firing range.) But he and his best friend and forward observer (Peter Sarsgaard) can’t catch a break; their skill set is of very little use in a war driven by air power. (If they’d held on for another 12 years, it would have been a different story.)
The movie’s voiceover narration fuses with its images to confirm war’s unabashed sexualization of violence, its canny, timeless capacity to tap young (mostly male) energy that wants to fight and fuck and will trade one for the other in a pinch. (These guys hate queers and bond over that hatred, yet they love to be naked and pile on each other, and when they get excited, they mock-hump each other like crazy monkeys.) Mendes accurately captures the romantic, often near-erotic intensity of male organizations geared toward competition, combat and dominance, and he lets the Marines sentimentalize their own intense male bonding without condescension. (At one point, they get together to watch The Deer Hunter, and their solemn expressions suggest it is a near-religious experience.) But their intense emotion finds no release. These swinging-dick Marines go home with blue balls, unable to process or appreciate all the spectacular, unique sights they witnessed (oil fields on fire, Iraqi caravans seared like briquettes) because their own trigger fingers initiated none of them.
Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. define their characters in precise strokes (Jamie Foxx’s drill sergeant, in particular, grows more complex with each new scene). But for the most part, the filmmakers seem to be under no illusions that war is anything but a collective, dehumanizing enterprise or that modern (or is it postmodern?) war can satisfy media-saturated imaginations. Accordingly, the movie begins with a bleached-out boot-camp sequence that’s deliberately reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket (complete with numb, first-person narration, barking drill sergeant and super-wide-angle, rectilinear master shots), weaves knowing war-movie references into its imagery and narration (a chopper zooming over our grunt heroes blasts The Doors on its PA system, prompting the gripe, “That’s Vietnam, music, man—can’t we get our own fucking music?”) and reaches a giddy referential peak in a sequence where the Marines’ viewing of the chopper-attack sequence from Apocalypse Now (they love it) is interrupted by the news that Saddam Hussein has rolled into Kuwait. (That film and Jarhead share an editor, Walter Murch.)
This is a dry, schematic film, more interesting to think about and talk about than to watch, but it’s intelligent and original, worth seeing and having an opinion on. The movie’s sardonic take on how pop culture gets appropriated and personalized in ways that artists never intended reminded me of a Marine friend’s disclosure that she and her unit used to unwind and bond by watching any ultra-violent film with Marines in it, from Full Metal Jacket to Starship Troopers. They didn’t give a damn if the message was antiwar as long as the film depicted combat as a phantasmagoric, hyper-masculine spectacle that portrayed Marines as the craziest, baddest hombres in the known universe. I always suspected there was truth in François Truffaut’s over-quoted line about there being no such thing as an antiwar film, but I didn’t know it was being illustrated daily in boot camp.