November 07, 2005


Jarhead is surprising not so much for its commentary as its lack of commentary. Neither a pro-war movie nor an anti-war movie, it would be more appropriately categorized as a barely-war movie. It takes a while to get to the Gulf War, and even once it does, the most we see of battles is the jet fighters blasting by overhead. There are a couple altercations with the enemy, but unlike Midway or Saving Private Ryan we get nothing for the history books — or even for that matter, the nightly news.
This is just as well, because the film wouldn't stand out as a war movie. The lack of a clear political message or goal leaves it free to explore characters that embody the full spectrum of philosophies, temperaments, personalities, and ideas. Some characters, like Anthony Swofford — also the man whose memoirs the film is adapted from — want nothing more than to get out and go home. Others, like Fowler, Troy, and Staff Sgt. Sykes, live to be Marines. Neither viewpoint is elevated about the other; we spent enough time with these characters to judge them by other means.
Fowler, played by Evan Jones, is the typical stupid, blood-thirty war nut. But Troy and Sykes, Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx, are complicated and introspective. Swofford, soured on the military, is the one who nearly lowers himself to savage action. Troy, who lied about his criminal past he so wanted to join up, is the one who reigns him in. Sykes proves to be a true hard ass in some scenes, but in others he appears fatherly if not likable. He is the smartest kind of leader, one who takes the time to know his men well enough to understand their individual limits and how to use the others shore up weaknesses.
The presence of sex in the film dominates in many large and small ways. Much of the lingo is sexually-oriented. When they go to war, they are denied sex for long periods at a time. Their girlfriends and even wives back home stray and move on. After one scene, I came away not only never being able to view The Deer Hunter the same way again, but also understand through the myriad of sexual and emotional tensions that being a serviceman creates. It was at once amusing, heartbreaking, and enlightening.
Mendes's attention to the mundane little details is pitch-perfect. His more artistic flourishes are hit-and-miss. The way he uses the igniting of the oil wells to turn the stark desert into a hellish landscape is inspired. So too is the use of music to alternatively support and counter the mood of the action on screen. On the other hand, Swofford's hallucinations feel out of place in a movie so otherwise grounded in reality. The connections drawn with the war movies of the era of Vietnam felt forced and off.
Still, the total effect is something new and unique. At one point Troy declares, "Fuck politics. We're here. All the rest is bullshit." Jarhead captures the truth of that statement with illuminating clarity. ()


No comments: