Jarhead

| November 12, 2005

Jarhead is a war movie, make no mistake, but it’s about a mistake of a war. And whereas most war films only promise to show you a side of war you’ve never seen before, Jarhead actually succeeds, as visually subtle as it is obviously spoken. This is war, but pretty much sans what we’ve come to expect from war. The climax yields no emotional clash, only the fear of friendly fire and the vindictive malaise of the desert heat and the desert boredom. Jarhead has no need for the physical–the army can treat surface wounds–it traipses bravely into the psychological where we are told: “There’s no standard solution for losing your mind.” And that is director Sam Mendes’ (Road to Perdition, American Beauty) expertise: the foray into our inner thoughts and dreams.
“Every war is different,” proclaims “”every war is the same.” This easily digested axiom serves as Jarhead’s spine: there will be stereotypes (and perhaps it is time to acknowledge these might not be stereotypes), yet there will be unexpected change. Along the way we’ll meet the harsh, yet inwardly compassionate officer (Jaime Foxx, playing the polar opposite of Collateral’s repressed cabbie); the quiet, bloodthirsty intellectual (Peter Sarsgaard); and the newbie, Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), author of the Desert War memoir upon which Jarhead was based.
Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard share a lot more in common than unpronounceable names: they’ve both gone from playing baby-faced modern nerds to playing baby-faced modern heroes. They seem poor representatives of the army, but that’s exactly the point: watch Gyllenhaal’s eyes tense as the camera zooms in on him, his face captured in the silhouette of his own sniper rifle; hear him crooning for a kill-shot that will let him see “that pink mist”; this is a new breed of soldier (or perhaps the old breed, redux). Along with Mendes, they have no trouble showing us the unglamorous reality of modern warfare: today’s grunts cannot compete with the lightning-fast war of technology. Irreverent, they trudge along, hydrating and masturbating in the lush desert scenery (not since Three Kings have there been so many shades of yellow) as they slowly lose their minds.
However, it isn’t until Jarhead drops the memoir-based narrative that it becomes more than a cutesy parable. For the first eighty minutes, Jarhead ambles around in the same vein of other war movies. Mendes can hold his own with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, but the substance itself is redundant. The anecdotes, the witticisms: they’re cliché today, and hindsight narrative (it’s easy to be clever after the fact) only lightens the sobriety of the tense atmosphere. Only when the testosterone picks up and the soldiers meld into a chaotic welter of hoots does the film seem real, although these moments seem so selected that it’s hard to avoid acknowledging how forced they are.
But then it starts raining oil, and Mendes is granted cinematic license to literally take us where the environment of other war movies hasn’t allowed. These last thirty minutes, set in a sulfurous hell, could at times be mistaken for science-fiction, so alien and yet so beautiful. There’s no need for the surrealistic dream sequences of American Beauty (although Mendes can’t resist throwing one in): the world itself is frightening enough.
So forgive the repetitious moments and chalk up the stumbling narrative as being a parallel of Operation: Desert Storm’s own stumbling journey. Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard, with the expert assistance of Sam Mendes, cross the breaking point to show another, perhaps crueler, form of beauty. In the end, not a single shot has been fired, and yet… not a single life has gone unscathed. “Welcome,” as Jarhead delights in repeating, “to The Suck.”

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