starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, Jamie Foxx
screenplay by William Broyles, Jr., based on the novel by Anthony Swofford
directed by Sam Mendes
by Walter Chaw I went to high school with a guy who fought in the first Gulf War. I remember him as a delicate, sensitive, beautiful boy who in retrospect looked a lot like Cillian Murphy. I directed him in a play--and though I haven't spoken to him since, I heard that when he returned home, he was not quite the same. I remember chortling about the first Gulf War, too, thinking how funny it was that our military pounded fourth-generation Chinese armour with bombs left over from Vietnam in a withering blitz that left Saddam Hussein's vaunted "million man army" of non-volunteer soldiers buried in their trenches and surrendering to the press. I've never been able to completely reconcile the two impressions of that war through the haze of my own youth--this introduction to modern warfare as complex and confusing to my adolescent mind as love and looming responsibility. War was either something frightening and mysterious that left you ineffably changed, or it was hilarious and chuff to a chest-pounding nationalistic ego. Whatever the case, you surmise that it involves the slaughter of hordes of faceless huns.
If I'd gone to war at the age of eighteen and come home without firing a shot, I suspect I'd have written something as vapid, grandiose, and self-conscious as Anthony Swofford's memoir Jarhead, the story of a ground war that never really materialized (and wouldn't until the son of that era's president decided to bring to climax what daddy'd coaxed to erection). The book and the film on which it's based share a tone of hipster sexual frustration metaphor in the Jay McInerney mold, here caged, as it usually is, in pumped-up bodies trying not to seem gay so as to ease admittance into these exclusive cults of machismo and sadomasochism.
First is Swofford's (Jake Gyllenhaal) introduction to his sugar-mouthed drill sergeant (not R. Lee Ermey), who immediately wonders aloud if Swofford is gay (it would've been funnier if it wasn't exactly like--except not as good as--Full Metal Jacket). Soon enough, Swofford is introduced to his Marine unit, all of shirtless men wrestling with one another for the purpose of branding "USMC" (United States Marine Corps) on some honoured individual they have to hold down en masse as he's shoved headfirst through his rite of passage. Then it's off to Kuwait on a passenger plane, at which point a lovable mentor materializes in Sgt. Siek (Jamie Foxx), who sees the eye of the tiger in our Swofford. From there, we're armed with the hope that Jarhead is going to be a Catch-22 about the ravages of war on those who are no longer, or have never, fought it. You'll recall that the first Gulf War took a hundred-and-seventy-five days to go from Shield to Storm--and then just four more days before Hussein was sent back across the border, blazing fields of oil the shameful markers of his retreat. (Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness, a document of the oil fires post-Gulf I, says more about the absurdity of war in any five of its wordless, operatic minutes than Jarhead does in its voice-over'd, meticulously- bleached and postured still-life entirety.) At the centre of Jarhead seems to be the idea that it's immoral to not let kids fight after turning them into merciless killing machines--and it also seems to believe that it's not polite to talk politics.
This is less a war film than a collegiate coming-of-age piece--not so much McInerney, I guess, as Bret Easton Ellis: misbehaviour amongst the young and the beautiful, with sniper rifles replacing bongs, the Marine crest replacing some Fraternity logo, and the various drunken bacchanals transplanted intact. The sexual euphemisms fly fast and hard long before Swofford shakes his groove thing wearing two Santa hats and Gyllenhaal's trademark grin, marking Jarhead as carrying all the pretensions of not only its source material, but also director Sam Mendes's sleeve-bound Cambridge education. But as with the Oedipal nothings of his Road to Perdition, Mendes is way too coy and declining--too in the thrall of the bleach-bypass of ace DP Roger Deakins and the invisible hand of legendary editor Walter Murch, thinking that a collection of arresting images and seamless transitions will obscure an almost total lack of urgency and gravitas.
Maybe it's just harder to make this kind of film with a volunteer army: The path Swofford takes to the desert is delivered in a progression of winking flashbacks that collectively amount to that hill of beans, obscuring his character and making a cipher of his suffering. Again like one of those college Id melodramas, it ends with a morally unmotivated suicide so that our idealized icons of impossible younger selves might gather in bad suits and unlikely haircuts to mourn the crush of years--to commiserate on how the best days of their lives were sacrificed at the altar of misspent youth, damning the crusty old Dean for separating their hale comrade from the only thing that ever gave his life meaning. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, except that the backdrop here is a righteous massacre in what history has shown to be a progressive ideological Crusade. Pretending that it's just boys being boys only manages to alienate the small percentage of the audience not disappointed that Jarhead's boo-rah trailer has promised them blood.
by Bill Chambers Universal issues Jarhead on DVD in competing widescreen, fullscreen, and 2-Disc widescreen Collector's editions; we received the standalone widescreen version for review. The 2.36:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer offers muted colours, coarse detail, and blown-out, almost solarized white levels--all intentional: This is an exquisite rendering of a challenging source, although I think the seams show in the film's digital grading more than they have since O Brother, Where Art Thou?, also shot by Roger Deakins. Editor/sound re-recording mixer Walter Murch brings some Apocalypse Now flair to the soundmix, presented here in crisp 5.1 Dolby Digital; most of Jarhead is relatively quiet, which was perhaps the rationale for leaving off a DTS option, but one does note the slightest timidity in the explosions and gunfire and wonder if the audio is living up to its potential.
Also on board are two film-length commentaries, in the first of which director Sam Mendes flies solo, in the second of which screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. pairs up with the real-life Anthony Swofford. The pitfalls of adapting Swofford's memoir figure prominently in both yak-tracks, though Mendes unfortunately references documentary extras that are not a part of this single-disc release. Swofford brings a great deal of integrity to the proceedings, such as in his diplomatic but genuine observation that "the family montage is possibly arch and a little extreme." It's all Broyles, a Vietnam veteran who's spent more time in the Hollywood trenches at this point, can do to sycophantically compare said sequence to a moment from The Godfather.
The disc's remaining bonus material is first-rate, and you can thank the always-eloquent Murch for that. Murch's presence really throws the essential callowness of Mendes into sharp relief. Prematurely feted by the Academy, Mendes is no different from Brett Ratner, really, in that he leans heavily on the expertise of old pros like Conrad Hall and now Murch--though as Ratner hasn't an ounce of taste in the first place, this has scarcely had a quantifiable effect on his work. Three groups of elisions--"Swoff's Fantasies" (6 mins.), "News Interviews in Full" (17 mins.), and "Deleted Scenes" (19 mins.)--include optional commentary from Mendes and Murch, who share the mike and maintain a courteous distance when the other one is speaking. Their third and final session together is the most educational; Murch's formidable powers of persuasion--and his attendant ability to spin silk phrases like "it felt like time was dilating"--catch Mendes with his pants down more than once, as when he asks for a reason why a prologue featuring Sam Rockwell as Swoff's Marine uncle is no longer in the film. Answer: because Mendes decided to shoot it cleverly (or as a blatant rip-off of Christopher Walken's "gold watch" monologue in Pulp Fiction, if you prefer), with Rockwell addressing the camera directly--and as our point-of-view was not yet tethered to an identity, the tenor of Rockwell's monologue would've been lost on the viewer. In Mendes's defense, he's quick to pull a Woody Tobias Jr. and lament his own inept staging, but still I think Murch almost deserves a co-directing credit for being such an astute watchdog--even if he gives contemporary audiences a little too much credit in valuing the implicit over the explicit. For what it's worth, save that interminable batch of faux-talking heads (no surprise, given their workshop flavour, that the theatre-bred Mendes loves them to death), the excised footage is in DD 5.1. Trailers for The Ice Harvest, Brokeback Mountain, and "E-Ring" cue up on startup. Originally published: March 6, 2006.