Director : Sam Mendes
Screenplay : William D. Broyles, Jr. (based on the book by Anthony Swofford)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Jake Gyllenhaal (Tony Swofford), Peter Sarsgaard (Troy), Jamie Foxx (Staff Sgt. Sykes), Lucas Black (Kruger), Chris Cooper (Lt. Col. Kazinski), Dennis Haysber (Maj. Lincoln)
Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, based on the bestselling memoir by Anthony Swofford, is set in 1990 during the Gulf War, but it is not particularly about the Gulf War. In fact, it is not really about war itself, which is a topic too obviously enormous and complex for any one movie to try to tackle (Francis Ford Coppola tried with gusto in Apocalypse Now and almost lost his mind for the effort; Sam Fuller tried likewise in The Big Red Oneand wound up with a hodgepodge).
Rather, Jarhead is about one aspect of one particular war, and part of the film’s intrigue and what makes it stand out is that it focuses on the aspects of war usually left out of the movies. Essentially, it is about waiting and what happens when men who have been pumped and primed and worked into a frenzy about the possibility of putting their hard-earned killing skills to use are left literally high and dry in a desert, their appetites for destruction slowly turning inward. If Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), which clearly inspired the early passage of Jarhead, was about how the military turns human beings into killing machines and sets them loose on the world, then Mendes’ film asks the questions, “What happens when the killing machines aren’t used?” It’s a masochistic exercise in bottled-up potential energy just primed to explode.
As Tony Swofford, Jake Gyllenhaal goes through the standard military motions--the brutality of basic training, the homosocial bonding with his fellow soldiers, and the eventual call to arms. Trained as a sniper under his rigid commanding officer (Jamie Foxx), Swofford is an old-school killer in a newly computerized age; he’s a relic and he doesn’t even know it yet. So, along with his spotter (Peter Saarsgard) and the rest of the platoon, Tony bakes in the unrelenting Saudi Arabian sun, engaging in absurdities like playing football in full germ-warfare suits for visiting journalists, making bets on when their wives and girlfriends will eventually leave them for more convenient men, and torturing each other both physically and mentally for no other reason than the fact that there isn’t much else to do.
Mendes, again working with a noted cinematographer in Coen Brothers’ favorite Roger Deakins (the great Conrad Hall shot Mendes’ first two films), turns Jarhead into a visually ravishing experience, one that might be written off as a little too pretty for its own good. When the oil wells begin blazing against the blackish sky, the film reaches into a sense of surreal poetry that Coppola indulged to great effect in Apocalypse Now. Yet, it’s hard to begrudge Mendes this tendency since the nature of waiting lends itself to intense introspection and focus on the otherwise mundane. Turning the desert into a kind of bizarre fantasy land of interminable imprisonment reflects the soldiers’ psychological and emotional state. They’re the ultimate strangers in a strange land--both the Middle East and their own minds.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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