Jarhead (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"Every war is different. Every war is the same." So says the voiceover narration in the closing moments of Sam Mendes' Jarhead. I might add: Every war movie is different. Every war movie is the same. This is Mendes' Gulf War answer to Apocalypse Now - he announces as much by connecting the two in an early scene showing marines whipped into a frenzy while watching the helicopter attack sequence from Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film. Jarhead is about how the experience of being in the military fundamentally changes an individual. In this case, the focus isn't about the madness of slaughter in the jungle, but the madness of inaction in the desert.

For those who don't remember the Gulf War (or who weren't old enough to watch in unfold in real time on television), here's a brief recap. The conflict started in August 1990, when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, igniting worldwide protests. As diplomatic negotiations stagnated, United Nations troops (primarily from the United States) massed in Saudi Arabia. By mid-January 1991, more than 500,000 U.S. men and women were in the Middle East, and "Operation Desert Shield" became "Operation Desert Storm." More than a month of brutal pounding from the air decimated the Iraqi forces. The ground war, launched on February 23, lasted only four days (or, to be precise: four days, four hours, one minute). A ceasefire was called on February 27, and Iraq accepted terms on March 3.

Jarhead shows these events not from the perspective of a civilian, war correspondent, or diplomat, but from that of a jarhead (jargon for marine) sniper who was supposed to be on the front line of the ground conflict - except there was no front line. The air attack so devastated the Iraqi army that no one was left to wage an effective battle. So when the marines went in, they were left with mop-up duty. Many of these men, despite being trained as killing machines, left without firing a shot. (As one puts it: "Are we ever going to get to kill anyone?") Based on the memoirs of Anthony Swofford, Jarhead takes viewers into the barracks and tents of a group of marines who view the conflict as a phantom war - a tease that never offers release.

The film opens at Camp Pendleton in 1989 - a year before Kuwait became the lead story of every nightly news program. There, Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is undergoing a brutal basic training regimen under the tutelage of an officer who recalls R. Lee Ermy's character from 1987's Full Metal Jacket. A year later, Swoff is enrolled in sniper training along with his spotter, Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), who would become his closest friend. Their commander, Sergeant Siek (Jamie Foxx), is the kind of hard-but-fair solider who shows up in nearly every war movie. In late 1990, Swoff's unit is sent to Iraq, where they spend months drilling and finding ways to kill time, waiting for the word to be given for the sword of American military might to fall. But the longer the finger is on the trigger without firing the weapon, the greater the stress becomes.

Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) invests a great deal of energy into developing the battleground as an alien environment. Using the sands of Mexico as a stand-in, Jarhead shows how different desert warfare is from conventional conflict. We see men training while wearing bulky anti-contamination suits in 100+ degree heat. Water must be downed in such quantities that vomiting sometimes occurs. Finding ways to blow off steam leads to risky behavior, the punishment for which can be the dreaded latrine duty. (If you thought it was bad in Platoon, wait until you see it here…) The Kuwaiti desert comes alive in this film, forming its own supporting character. There are some wonderful twilight and nighttime shots that appear almost to have taken place on a different planet. Cinematographer Roger Deakins uses handheld cameras effectively (but not to motion sickness inducing excess). And, to strengthen the connection to Apocalypse Now, Mendes has employed Walter Murch, who edited the earlier film.

It's unsurprising that Jarhead attains an impressive level of verisimilitude. Although The USMC did not officially participate in the filming, Mendes hired an army of ex-marine advisors who kept things real and avoided caricatures. This is not a strongly political or anti-war film (certainly compared to pictures like Apocalypse Now or Platoon). It's about the characters and how they react to their circumstances. They see things within the microcosm of their tents. What "it all means," whether the attack is justified, and whether the troops should have pushed all the way to Baghdad are questions for other movies with other agendas.

Given the spotlight, Jake Gyllenhaal seizes the opportunity with a performance that will generate Oscar buzz. His portrayal of Swoff is credible and complex. Nothing in his development seems jarring or poorly motivated. Peter Sarsgaard earns points for stepping out of the minor rut into which he had fallen. Jaime Foxx makes a stock character more interesting that he might ordinarily be. Chris Cooper has a small part as Lt. Col. Kazinski, and unsurprisingly steals the scene. And Dennis Haysbert shows up a couple of times as a major. His first appearance - the latrine scene - is memorable.

Like many war movies, Jarhead comes complete with a voiceover narrative. Despite my general disapproval of this as a cinematic device (it's too often used as a crutch), it succeeds for the most part. This is, after all, a memoir, and there are times when it's helpful to provide viewers with information in a short-hand manner that would be cumbersome to present in a traditional way. Apparently, Mendes worked long and hard on the voiceovers - they are not distractions and they do not pull the viewer "out of the moment."

Jarhead is compelling in the way it presents a new facet of a genre that some would argue was mined out long ago. Yet, as much as the film contains the familiar elements of war movies, the thrust is different. This is about loss, but not the loss of life. Instead, it's about the dissipation of identity. Those who entered the corps and were sent to Kuwait were disconnected from their previous life and all that went with it: wives/girlfriends, friends, jobs, families… But, instead of accomplishing what they were trained to do, they wait, and Godot is nowhere to be found. Portraying these personality transformations is where Jarhead excels, and the reason why this isn't just another of the growing number of dramas about the Gulf War.

Jarhead (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2005-11-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1