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Jarhead Print E-mail
Monday, 01 January 2007

ImageAnthony Swofford’s nonfiction book about his time of military service as a United States Marine became a bestseller, speaking to a whole new generation of warriors who had seen the horrors of the battlefield. “Jarhead” was filled with cynicism and outrage about the way the war was conducted as well as what the military personnel had to carry out. After listening to several military men talking about their time in the service, I quickly realized that Swofford’s objections weren’t unique.

Where Swofford’s book pulled the reader in and delivered a message, though, “Jarhead” the movie lacks closure and depth to some degree. We are introduced to individuals, young men in the United States Marines who were trained to be fierce warriors who would make a difference against Saddam Hussein, who was built up to near-monster status.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Anthony Swofford, the main protagonist and first-person narrator. Gyllenhaal’s look is severe and wild-eyed at times, then totally vacuous at others, which serves to carry a lot of the widely ranging emotions that move him throughout the film. With his head shaved, then either in BDUs or bare-chested in the desert with dog tags, Gyllenhaal looks every inch the Marine.

The first-person narration pulled me into the film. First-person narration always provides a platform for a viewer, but Gyllenhaal oozes self-deprecation and sarcasm as he introduces us to himself and his dysfunctional family and soon-to-be cheating girlfriend. Unfortunately, the film errs slightly with the over-the-top, “Full Metal Jacket” treatment of Swoff in boot camp. This rings false because that kind of behavior from a drill instructor wouldn’t be tolerated in today’s military. Cases of abuse do exist, but not to this degree. The D. I. would be on immediate report. After boot camp and after the introduction to his family, Swoff takes us to his assignment. He’s immediately roughed up by the unit as the new guy, and meets Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, in one of his best roles so far). At first Swoff tries to duck the assignment, claiming he’s sick. Then Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx in a role that allows him to swing from a hardened commander to a man just trying to get along with his chosen profession) offers Swoff the chance to become the unit’s bugler.

It doesn’t take Swoff long to figure out he’s been made a fool. Primarily because there’s no bugle. Instead, Sykes basically ridicules him, then tells the unit there’s an opportunity for them to become Marine scout/snipers. Something inside Swoff answers the call to battle and he puts himself into the effort of earning the right to be one of those select few. Surprisingly, he and Troy make it as a team. Swoff gets assigned as the shooter.

Shortly thereafter, the unit is called up to active duty in Iraq as part of Operation Desert Shield. The rest of the cast is introduced in brief shots setting them firmly in the viewer’s mind. Lucas Black plays Kruger, the young Texan who’s aching to prove himself as a warrior in the field rather than work for his father in the oil business. Evan Stone is Fowler, the obnoxious creep that nobody likes whom you know is going to go crazy the first chance he gets. Brian Geraghty is Fergus, the innocent lamb among the wolves. Chris Cooper plays Lieutenant Colonel Kazinski, who’s as offensive as he is sincere. Dennis Haysbert appears as Major Lincoln, a role he makes his own, turning on the arrogance and disdain for others.

Even though not much military action takes place. Boredom and constant stress without getting to do anything about it was one of the worst enemies with which the soldiers of the First Gulf War had to contend. Even so, the story moves along steadily. As Swoff’s world starts coming apart, so does everyone else’s.

The insecurities of the characters in the movie are intense. They’re easy to imagine because everyone has been through them in one way or another—except that most people haven’t lived through it under the constant specter of death. To make matters worse, the young men out in the desert sands have absolutely no control over what’s going on back home.

The billboard of ex-wives and ex-girlfriends is harsh. Those young soldiers had young wives and young girlfriends that were just as alone as they were. Many military marriages end in divorce, not least because American servicemen are often stationed in areas where there are available women. But there weren’t any available women at all in the Middle East.

The news interviews conducted by the media are great. The sections where each of the Marines were interviewed were partly improvised at Director Sam Mendes’s request. Mendes wanted honesty from each of the characters that would show through in the interviews, and he asked the actors to dig deeply into the characters they’d created to find the answers to the questions they didn’t have lines for.

The endless boredom that is relayed so well during the movie finally ends and Desert Shield becomes Desert Storm. Swoff’s unit is pulled into action. By this time, though, Swoff has managed to get himself busted back down to private from lance corporal, and has become the butt of a lot of humor. In the meantime, his relationship with Christine, his girlfriend, has gone totally south.

The image of Swoff getting up in the middle of the night and going to the latrine is one that will disturb viewers and last for a long time. The scene in which he starts throwing up sand into the sink, without any hint of a warning that he’s just having a nightmare, is harsh.

The carnage left by the war is worse. When Swoff and the unit march through the bleak desert, then get fired on by their own air support, I knew things weren’t going to go well. The tension caused by the scene of them encountering the Bedouins out looking for whoever killed their camels is almost obscene. But one of the biggest questions that comes to mind is how and when Swoff learned the Bedouin language that he uses to get them out of the situation.

Later, when the unit discovers the dead exodus of people who were simply trying to flee out of harm’s way, I was totally washed out emotionally. Those scenes will do that to you because they were real, and were even part of our daily news covering that war. As the special features documentaries point out, there’s a difference between a burned body and a charred one. We see both in those scenes.

The special features on the disc are well done. They’re packed with information about the actors, the filming, the military, and the war. The behind-the-scenes segments are worth watching, and the commentaries offer a lot of insight about how things were done during the shooting and why. Swoff’s Fantasies is a hoot, but a lot of it is over the top as well (in particular the D. I. in a dress and blowing up Major Lincoln in the latrine). The thing that really touches after seeing the movie, though, is watching the special feature on the Marines who returned to civilian life after the war.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t have quite the depth of the book. There are simply too many unanswered questions about the characters. What trouble did Troy get into in his civilian life, and why did he choose to lie about it? Why was being a Marine so important to him? What did Swoff’s girlfriend say to him when he got back to the States? As a viewer, I invested heavily in those characters, and I felt entitled to the rest of the story.

Granted, the book was nonfiction, but liberties were taken in making the film. As a moviegoer, I like to know the whole story. That’s why I buy the ticket or the DVD. With “Jarhead” the movie, we didn’t get the whole story, and I felt that lack when the end credits rolled.

Video Presentation: “Jarhead” is an outstanding video presentation terrifically suited for high-def. Although the backdrop tends to be the desert much of the time, Mendes and his film crew manage to convey a whole lot more, and the high-def imagery delivers a tremendous impact. The scenes of the oilfields burning and the long line of dead people immolated in their cars is offensive and gut-wrenching, but casts a stark light on war.

Audio Presentation: The soundtrack for “Jarhead” simply kicks butt and takes no prisoners. The music is well choreographed and is separated well so that it shows off a surround sound system, but it’s compressed.

The special features included on the disc are great, particularly the documentary about the Marines who returned to civilian life and struggled with it. The commentaries are deep and filled with interesting information and personal experiences (especially from the author, Anthony Swofford). However, all of these extras can also be found on the regular DVD disc, so if you already own one, there’s no real reason to upgrade to the HD DVD unless you just want the movie to sit comfortably in with your other HD DVD discs, or love it enough to shell out the extra cash for a better video presentation.

Ultimately, “Jarhead” is intriguing and compelling, filled with mesmerizing emotion and true-to-life characters. But in the end, we don’t get the whole story about where they go and what’s brought them into the situations they now find themselves in. That’s real life, and movies may be about real life, but they also deliver a full story that picks us up, carries us along, and puts us down in a good place. I just had too many unanswered questions at the end of this one.

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