Jarhead

One saying about the military is that it’s all “hurry up and wait.” Another is that war “is 90 percent boredom and 10 percent sheer terror.” Jarhead is very much about the tedium of war. Marine Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) makes his way through basic and then sniper training. He’s shipped to Saudi Arabia for the first Iraq war. Swofford (Who’s a real person; Jarhead is based on his memoir.) is a typical modern soldier. Inteligent, but not really interested in politics, he’s content to follow orders (most of the time) and takes to the extremes of military life well. As he and his company wait for the invasion to begin, they sit tight in the desert, feeding B.S. to reporters and worrying about who is sleeping with their girlfriends and wives while they’re away.

The air war phase of the first Iraq war was interminable. For 145 days wave after wave of bombers flew over Kuwait and Iraq reducing every possible military target to rubble. People at home watching it on CNN were growing restless. I can’t imagine what the ground troops went through. And when it began, the waiting continued, at least for Swofford’s company. They trekked through the desert, sweating in the 100 plus degree heat, watching the lights of the burning oil wells at night, and sleeping in puddles of crude geysered up by the uncapped wells. Rumors of hardened Republican Guards just over the next dune persisted but never materialized. The only forces that fired on them were Americans–a friendly fire incident caused by the fact that their radios didn’t work. And when Swofford and his spotter finally get a chance to use their training, it’s snatched away at the last second.

Director Sam Mendes has taken a frustrating situation and made a frustrating film about it. The technical aspects excel. Jarhead is a good looking and well directed film. Gyllenhaal turns in a great performance playing Swofford as a working class American kid trying to get to college and a better life. The supporting performances are strong as well. Peter Saarsgard, Chris Cooper and especially Jaime Foxx turn in exemplary work.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up. Mendes has made a questionable choice here. He’s constantly referring to past war films with similar themes, specifically Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, MASH and others. All of these are about the alienation that clouds judgement. By referencing them Mendes is only drawing attention to the fact that he doesn’t really have anything original to add to the theme. I know this was done in the spirit of homage and that he was trying to make a point about the universality of the war experience, but a deliberately derivitive film is still derivitive.

At one point in the movie a chopper flies over the company, blasting out some 60’s rock song. One of the grunts says, “That’s a Vietnam song. We need to get our own songs.” True, but the soldiers of that war and the current one also need to get their own angst.

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