2005Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard
arhead, ex-sniper Anthony Swofford’s vivid memoir detailing his tenure as a marine in the first Gulf War, begins with a stark denouncement of film’s ability to articulate an anti-war sentiment: “Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended,” he writes. “Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography to the military man.”
Swofford goes on to recount how his division held all-night marathons of supposedly anti-war films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket in a state of sustained and alcohol-fueled ecstasy—a provocative view about the very real restrictions of cinema. The unfortunate thing, then, is that the film version of Swofford’s pained self-examination, directed by Sam Mendes and with a screenplay by William Broyles, Jr., is a tawdry, almost thoughtless affair that poses even fewer questions about global conflict than it does of war movies themselves.
Walking into Jarhead, I wasn’t exactly clear on how Mendes was going to address the problems inherent to movie depictions of war that Swofford exposes in his book. Would Mendes dare to attempt demystifying the canonical, genre-defining films that Swofford dismisses? Well, in short, not really. There is an inspired scene featuring Apocalypse Now’s “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence, but (despite almost no actual combat) Jarhead is even guiltier of the failures that Swofford attributes to its peers. And, worse than that, with remarkable precision, Mendes and Broyles neuter the hard-earned indignation that Swofford wields in his book: in the film, everything that could have helped to elucidate the depredations of wartime military service is either mined for cheap laughs or is wasted on a too-cute Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Swofford in the film well enough, but who ultimately falls prey to the film’s undue glorification of military life.
In fact, Jarhead’s jokiness is its main problem in the film’s first two-thirds. Beginning with Swofford as he enters marine training, we bear witness to the countless indignities endured by a young recruit: cleaning shit-smeared outhouses, humiliation in front of his peers, or forced participation in exhaustive and murderous training. But instead of bringing us along to ruminate over the process of dehumanization that takes place during Swofford’s instruction, Mendes wants us to laugh at him and his roguish cohorts.
In one scene, Swofford and his company are made to play football in the desert for a highly contrived public relations event, designed so that members of the press can catch a glimpse of the soldiers (in full gear) relaxing for some all-American fun. But what the scene has to say about media manipulation during wartime soon collapses under the weight that Mendes gives to the boys’ camaraderie-forming good times. Part of this is understandably the trap of filmic representation itself: in the book, all of the recruits’ brutish roughhousing is filtered through the retrospective pall of Swofford’s narrative tone. It is due to a collective fear of imminent death (and anxiety over their helplessness to participate in the changes taking place back home) that provokes Swofford and his cronies’ self-destructive, macho behaviour. For Mendes, this concept is an afterthought, and his Jarhead seems unwittingly to hurt Swofford’s message, unsure of what kind of insight it wants to offer about the American presence in Iraq either in 1990 or, least of all, in 2005.
Visually, however, Jarhead’s on-paper credentials are unrivaled: editor Walter Murch and director of photography Roger Deakins capture the white heat of the desert with a Leanian eye for detail and shadow. In one fine scene, Swofford and his company encounter a group of Bedouin tribesmen, and the blinding sun scorches everything onscreen outside of the soldiers and their hazily-viewed counterparts, literalizing the way in which interactions between westerners and the Arab world have dominated our political field of vision within recent years.
In the end, many will rightly point back to David O. Russell’s classic Three Kings as a much more successful attempt to capture the feel for the period, but, with so many years of American involvement in Iraq already behind us and with no end in sight, let’s hope that there’s at least the possibility of future films grappling with these issues more courageously.
By: Bob Kotyk
Published on: 2005-11-08