Jarhead: A war movie for a new type of war
‘“Every war is different; every war is the same,’” says Anthony Swofford at the end of Jarhead, the new film by American Beauty director Sam Mendes. It’s a crucial point for the character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal ‘— he’s just returned from the Persian Gulf, having spent the better part of a year preparing for a war that lasted four days, and like his fellow soldiers, he’s working overtime trying to decide what that means. It’s not an easy answer, and Jarhead isn’t an easy film. But Swofford’s words describe it more eloquently than I ever could.
Based on the memoir of the same name, Jarhead details the new enlistee’s experience as a reluctant soldier in the first Gulf War. We meet Swofford on his way to boot camp, still a smart-ass kid with a copy of The Stranger tucked into his footlocker. We follow him through the first 170 days leading up to Operation: Desert Shield/Desert Storm as he questions his own motive for enlisting (‘“Sir, I took a wrong turn on the way to college, sir!’” he quips to his drill sergeant), finds acceptance among his company, and becomes a sniper partnered with Lance Corporal Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, in a characteristically strong performance). Their unit is dispatched to the Persian Gulf after Iraqi forces invade Kuwait.
Jarhead is a war film that draws on the greatest of its predecessors (the boot camp scenes call to mind the lighter moments of Full Metal Jacket, before everything goes to hell) while carving out its own identity in the genre as a new kind of film about a new kind of war. It’s enthralling from its opening seconds, but only when it moves to the desert does it become clear why this is such a unique film: I don’t know of another one that so thoroughly examines the psychological effect of the current epoch of warfare. The young men of Jarhead have been trained as Marines in accordance with a long tradition, but the war they fight (or, for most of the film, anticipate fighting) is a new strain. Consequently, they are unsure how to feel about the fact that formal conflict lasts only 100 hours and is conducted largely though air strikes. The most noticeable gut reaction is disappointment.
‘“Are we ever going to get to kill anyone?’” wonders one frustrated soldier. This sentiment, which echoes throughout the last half of the film, is reminiscent of Kilgore’s lament in Apocalypse Now: ‘“Someday this war’s gonna end.’”
If it sounds like Mendes paints these young men as mindless and bloodthirsty, don’t be deceived: like everyone who works a job, the soldiers search for a way to measure their effectiveness. It’s only natural, hard as it may be for civilians to understand, that some do so by counting enemies killed. When Gyllenhaal’s character goes through the war without once firing his rifle, it plays hell on his psyche: unlike Camus’ Stranger, Swofford doesn’t kill anyone, but the result is life changing nonetheless.
This ethical confusion is underscored in the way Mendes paces his story. By focusing on the lead-up to the war ‘— the endless waiting and resultant boredom, the heartbreak of a cheating lover back home, the constant fear of a chemical weapons attack ‘— it’s a jolt when the first real battle takes place near the end of the film. The centerpiece isn’t the war itself, but the soldiers who fight it. I’ll leave it to those with military experience to comment on how true-to-life Jarhead is. As a civilian, I can only call it a stirring portrayal. The supporting cast is tremendous, featuring amazing performances by Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper, and the script, adapted from the book by William Broyles, is at turns droll and tragic (but consistently brilliant and profane).
It should also be mentioned that the film doesn’t feel like a statement for or against war, nor is it judgmental toward its characters. Especially in today’s political climate, it’s an achievement that Jarhead manages to describe modern warfare without taking a clear side. That’s not to say some viewers won’t append their own preconceptions to it, only that to do so would be a mistake.
I was initially dissatisfied with Gyllenhaal in the closing moments of the film ‘— though we see everything he goes through, it remains unclear what he feels about it. But after some reflection, it really does make sense: the viewer is unsure because Swofford is unsure, and Gyllenhaal effectively inhabits that turmoil. Taken with the rest of his performance, which is hands-down his finest work to date (apologies to the Bubble Boy fans), Jarhead amounts to a bracing picture of war at the end of the century, with all its complexities intact. It’s not the first film about Desert Storm, but it sets the standard for those to come.
Bust Glen Baity down to Private via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.