For decades, war films have been a Hollywood staple. From the gung-ho exploits of John Wayne to the druggy morass of Vietnam in Apocalypse Now and Platoon, the heightened moral tests and physical endangerment of the battlefield have long enticed filmmakers wishing to pose larger questions about human existence. Now Sam Mendes, director of the dubitable Best Picture winner American Beauty, takes his shot at the milieu with an adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s Gulf War memoir, Jarhead. Fussily directed and occasionally pretentious, the film is an episodic, apolitical string of wartime vignettes that ponders the vagaries and vulgarities of modern soldierdom.
Jarhead doesn’t so much tell a story as it does piece together a sequence of wartime anecdotes dealing with the absurdities it sees in military service. There is no plot to speak of, only scene after scene of Private Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his fellow Marines engaging in frat-boy antics and stress-induced histrionics. Meandering from boot-camp obstacle courses to blazing middle-eastern oil fields, its directionless wandering seems powered more by the inertia of the two-hour feature-film format than any central conflict.
Films, or at least war films, weigh heavily on the proceedings, as Jarhead seems imminently concerned with both its place in the war-film canon and the pull war movies exert on current conflicts. Just as the gangsters in The Sopranos are endlessly discussing Goodfellas and The Godfather, desperately trying to both break away from and live up to their filmic heritage, the soldiers in Jarhead watch Vietnam films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter and wonder how their battles will measure up to these war-film legends. And yet when a radio blares classic 70s rock, a soldier mumbles, “That’s Vietnam music. Why can’t we get our own music?” The characters and the movie exist in the shadow of war-film history, trying to live up to past glories while creating a unique identity.
The search for identity and the narrative amorphousness are fitting, then, considering the film’s constant paeans to existentialism. With explicit references to Camus and a slew of absurdist allusions, Jarhead depicts military service as a Sisyphean onslaught of degradation and pettiness. Swofford and his unit are forced to play football in triple-digit desert heat while wearing full gas-protection gear in order to impress a journalist. They sign forms guaranteeing they won’t sue for the possible side effects of untested drugs–drugs which they are told are their only protection against chemical attacks. They build mountains out of sandbags, only to tear them down as soon as they’re completed. Existence, at least for these soldiers, is pointless, irrational, and utterly unsatisfying.
Dissatisfaction–caused by the inability to achieve meaningful release–is the film’s most regular talking point. Early on, Swofford is selected for a sniper unit, a position for which he trains endlessly. After a while, however, the tattered, bullet-ridden targets of the shooting range are no longer enough, and he longs to see “the pink mist” of a real enemy kill. But in the uncertain world of modern warfare, ground troops often spend more time waiting than fighting. The bulk of the film, then, is spent in the antechamber of the combat zone.
The ongoing tease of combat fuels Swofford’s bloodlust, and if the film has any driving tension, it arises from its continual deferment to anti-climax. At each stage, the soldiers’ lives are a repetitious cycle of training and waiting, only to be followed by more training, more waiting–with the release afforded by combat violence always just beyond their grasp. Where many previous war films have dealt with the psychological effects of killing, Jarhead is fixated on the effects of not killing, as the film dubiously suggests a loose moral equivalence between actual murder and training someone to kill but denying them the opportunity to do so.
In the absence of combat, then, is unending boredom. The soldiers cannot kill the enemy, so they find ways to kill time, and though murder is not an option, they resort to other types of obscenity. The pre-war waiting room they inhabit is unrepentantly vulgar, a foul-mouthed pig’s trough of sexual frustration and juvenile hijinks. With language brimming over with enough four-letter epithets to make Quentin Tarantino blush and constant displays of brutish sexual braggadocio, the level of coarseness–especially sexual–is meant to be somewhat appalling. The film wants to knock soldiers from their distinguished place in society, or at least question the validity of honoring those who engage in such unseemly behavior. Are these crude, aggressive young men, many barely out of high school, really the valiant heroes that they are so often portrayed to be?
And yet for all its cynicism about soldiers, the film is honest enough in its portrayal of them to let those with a respect for the military see past Mendes’s wariness. Soldiers can possess a rambunctious, sometimes-raunchy spirit, but that is often precisely what makes them fit for service. There may be those who would feel more comfortable being defended by a group of passive, gentle wisps, but these traits seem less than ideal for the trials of the battlefield, and if the price for readiness is that soldiers occasionally engage in locker-room shenanigans, it is one that is well worth paying.
Readiness and its psychological cost are the central elements around which Jarhead revolves, and Mendes does a fine job highlighting them from behind the camera. His desert scenes, especially, are washed out and overexposed so that horizon lines seem to disappear behind the characters, stranding them in a sandy, edgeless oblivion. His most stunning images occur on the long haul into battle after the oil wells have been set ablaze. The pillars of fire shoot high into the sky, raining oil on the soldiers marching below–another senseless act of destruction on the uncertain path to war.