Every war, it seems, has an anti-war film that defines it. For those who came of age between the World Wars, there was “All Quiet on the Western Front,” while the post WWII crowd had “Paths of Glory,” and so on through “Dr. Strangelove,” “MASH,” “Catch-22,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Come and See” and “Platoon.” All of which have utilized the mighty power of motion pictures to make armed conflict a thing of the past.
But seriously, we’re a bit overdue for one of these kinds of films. Since World War II, there tends to be a lag between conflicts and the movies based on them in the first place (“Three Kings” and “Black Hawk Down,” for example), but even longer for those that use the conflict in question to make a statement about the unpleasantness of war in general. “Jarhead,” based on the novel by former Marine sniper Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) and directed by “Road to Perdition’s” Sam Mendes, desperately wants to be this generation’s “Platoon,” but doesn’t quite make it.
Which isn’t to say “Jarhead” is a bad movie. It’s pretty good, and gives a painfully realistic portrayal of the horrors and drudgery of military life. Those unfamiliar with Swofford’s book or the underlying theme (“Welcome to the suck” indeed) may be a little taken aback at the unvarnished depictions of basic training, deployment, and combat, as well as the “shocking” displays of misogyny and homophobia/homoeroticism in our nation’s military.
The movie starts, like these movies often do, with basic training. It’s a familiar sequence, but doesn’t take up a lot of the running time here. Through flashbacks and voiceover, we learn that Swofford’s father and uncle were both in the Marines, and this was one of the main reasons he gravitated toward the Corps. Early in basic training, however, he realizes this might have been a mistake, and shirks duty by faking ailments. He’s steered into sniper training (by Jamie Foxx’s character) and discovers an aptitude for the duty.
Shooting paper targets doesn’t make for very compelling filmmaking, however, and before too long, Iraq invades Kuwait and Swofford’s unit is one of the first to be shipped out for Operation: Desert Storm. The film’s lengthy second act examines how he and his mates attempt to keep themselves occupied during the massive troop deployment, all while avoiding their fear of the impending conflict with forced displays of bravado and repetitive drills and training.
Calling “Jarhead” an “anti-war movie” isn’t entirely accurate. There’s little glory on display amidst the friendly fire attacks and bombed civilians, certainly, but – as Peter Sarsgaard’s character puts it – “Fuck politics, we’re here now.” Several potshots are taken at military bureaucracy and the motivations behind the first Gulf War (given amusing voice by Lucas Black), but “Jarhead” is more personal than that. It’s the story of how one particular grunt deals with the excruciating boredom of waiting for something to happen, as well as the shock to the system caused by entering a shooting war.
“Jarhead” does feature stunning visuals. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have created some fantastic imagery, from the endless desert wastes to the apocalyptic visions of burning oil wells over a ruined landscape.
Where the film falls short is its lack of plot and any deeper background on Swofford or his comrades. In his own words, he “got lost on the way to college,” but the book did a much better job establishing his childhood love of the Marines and determination to sign up, against his father’s wishes, I might add. Without this context, Gyllehnaal’s fine performance loses some of its punch. This is his best role to date, but it – as well as the efforts of Foxx and Sarsgaard – only serves to accentuate the lack of story.
I mentioned earlier that “Jarhead” wants to be this generation’s “Platoon, but it’s much more closely related to “Full Metal Jacket,” what with its often humorous look at basic training and largely ambivalent take on the soldiers themselves. It’s not as good as either of those films, but the first Gulf War didn’t give us many big screen movie moments as Vietnam, did it? In that respect, the setting is perfect for the kind of introspective profile Mendes and company are trying to put forth.
For those bemoaning the lack of “action,” I’m sure whatever flicks come out after the end of the current Iraq War (whenever that turns out to be) will be much more, uh, “entertaining.”
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