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Jarhead (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 04 November 2005
“Jarhead” is based on the best-selling memoir by Anthony Swofford about his experiences as a Marine before and during the Gulf War. The movie is in a long tradition of soldier training-and-action tales, often centering on the Marines, going back to the silent era and Lon Chaney’s “Tell It to the Marines.” The late 1940s brought “Sands of Iwo Jima” with John Wayne. In the 1950s there was “The Halls of Montezuma” with Richard Widmark; later came “Platoon” and “G.I. Jane.” In terms of story, “Jarhead” isn’t distinctly different from the films that came before, but it has one central difference: here our platoon of gung-ho volunteers never gets into a battle.

As he narrates, Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) reports for duty at Camp Pendleton in 1989. He tells us that after a man has been to battle with a rifle, his hands never forget the rifle. As he’s immediately hazed upon entering his platoon’s barracks, Swofford sourly narrates that maybe joining the Marine Corps may have been a bad decision.

They’re under the command of Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), who’s tough but fair, quickly recognizing that Swofford might have some potential, particularly as a sniper. Swofford is a bit brighter than the rest—at least he’s reading Camus’ “The Stranger”—and becomes friendly with Alan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), a cynic with complex motivations. The platoon raucously watches “Apocalypse Now,” cheering and hooting during the helicopter scene. They know the point of view of the film, but they have their own perspective—Semper Fi! Hoo-rah!

Saddam Hussein’s army invades Iraq, and it’s quickly apparent that the U.S. will be part of the effort to drive the Iraqis out. This is fine with the young Marines, including Swofford and Troy. Swofford comes from a long family tradition of Marines, and wants to prove himself in battle. Troy’s motivations are darker; it seems at times that he just wants to kill someone.

When they reach the Arabian desert, their enthusiasm begins to wane, since they don’t do very much except patrol a vast empty plain, hydrate (they drink their canteens dry), dehydrate (they piss), march, masturbate and argue. Tempers begin to fray; Swofford, ordinarily easy going, gets furiously, almost murderously, angry with a mild-mannered soldier. Sykes is still with them, still trying to keep their youthful energies and enthusiasms in check, or at least directed to non-destructive ends.
Finally, something happens—the camp is shelled, though no one is killed. Overhead they see planes taking on the enemy, and envy the pilots. But later when they find the remains of a fleeing convoy of civilians apparently destroyed by allied planes, they don’t know how to respond. There are charred bodies everywhere, looking peaceful and not quite human. Trucks, buses and cars have been burned to rust and pale sand.

There’s no climax in “Jarhead.” The story ends realistically but abruptly, leaving these eager soldiers without any way of expressing their eagerness.

Mendes, best known for “American Beauty,” directs in a matter-of-fact style with occasional more hallucinatory images (as when Swofford dreams he vomits a sinkful of sand). The color is washed out—peculiarly, even in the Camp Pendleton scenes—reduced to the palate of desert camouflage: pale tans, light beiges, occasional browns. Periodically, the screen tells us how many days the platoon has been in the desert, how many troops total have arrived.

TV reporters—always seen at a distance—arrive and interview some of the troops, including Swofford and his buddies. TV backfires when one guy prepares to show a tape of “The Deer Hunter” his wife has sent him—only to discover that it’s an especially graphic Dear John letter instead. Swofford has to clean latrines, ordered to halt while an officer (Dennis Haysbert) leaves him a little gift. Busywork is the order of the day; letters from home assume enlarged importance.

They wander, almost dazed by their experiences, through the desert as the oil wells catch on fire and rain oil on our Marines. Swofford encounters a puzzled, lost, oil-soaked horse that wanders away, still lost, still looking for a kind human hand. Though the Marines have orders they follow, they have no more sense of purpose than the confused horse.

It’s an expansive-looking film, though Camp Pendleton and the desert in Arabia resemble one another; perhaps the earlier scenes shouldn’t have had the color so desaturated. The song score is very well chosen, but the sound engineering is uneven. Filmmakers look at their footage over and over until it becomes so familiar to them they’ve lost the ability to hear it with unbiased attention. So often, as here, audiences have trouble understanding a lot of the lines—but the filmmakers, being used to the lines, think they’ve laid down an acceptable track.

Though all the actors are very good, especially Sarsgaard, “Jarhead” doesn’t get into their unconscious. Even Swofford remains remote, and he’s the narrator. The movie is told entirely in anecdotes, and has almost no story per se. Usually, this kind of film builds to a big battle scene in which the central character gets to prove his mettle as a Marine—but there are no battle scenes. The young Marines are just left hanging, soldiers without a war, all gung ho and nowhere to go.

“Jarhead” is one of the few movies about soldiers that’s neither pro-military nor anti-war; it shows us the life of a Marine in the desert in 1989, and allows us to draw our own conclusions. But the conclusion of the film—we’re still out in the desert—can’t apply to us, even metaphorically. It remains a report from a shimmering, sandy front.

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