There is a telling moment during Jarhead when its main character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, hears an American helicopter blaring a Sixties pop song as it flies overhead into battle. He turns to his Marine sniping partner, Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), and quips, “That’s from Vietnam, can’t we get our own music for this war?” It seems screenwriter William Broyles Jr., himself a former Marine and Vietnam vet, and Sam Mendes, the director of American Beauty, can’t steer clear of subtle linkages and comparisons between Vietnam and our past and current war with Iraq. During the pre-combat phase of the movie, which is the first two thirds of the flick, the Marines in Jarhead fantasize about combat by watching Apocalypse Now and The Deerhunter. Marines in the early Nineties no doubt looked to Vietnam as the last big war, but they were more likely to find motivation from active duty vets who’d fought in Beirut and Panama, not from the Hollywood screen. The same could be said of curious moviegoers looking to the Hollywood Jarhead for a realistic and compelling account of the common grunt’s experience during the Persian Gulf War.
Gyllenhaal is cast as Anthony “Swoff” Swofford, the author of a best-selling book the movie is based on. The ever-cynical “Swoff,” is a well-balanced Marine only in the sense that he has a chip on each shoulder. During the opening scene, Recruit Swofford tells off his Marine Drill Instructor by yelling that Swofford joined the Corps because he “got lost on the way to college.” This line underscores the Vietnam-era myth and the current liberal riff that enlisted men are demographic underachievers for whom the military is the only option. Gyllenhaal’s “Swoff” initially appears to be the only exception in a cast of stereotypes. Swoff peruses Camus’s The Stranger while sitting on a toilet in the barracks, but consistently engages in immature behavior. Gyllenhaal is convincing as the brooding main character who struggles to come to terms with an admittedly poor decision to join the Marines, wallows in self-pity about his girlfriend back home, and wets his trousers when he first comes under fire. There are some brief moments of intensity when “Swoff” snaps from the desert heat and the endless battle drills, threatens to shoot a squad mate, then pleads with the fellow to shoot him just to “end the waiting”. If only the moviegoer had it that easy. Swoff’s drunkenness while shirking guard duty results in disciplinary action from his leader, the ever steady and seasoned Staff Sergeant Sieck, played forcefully and truthfully by Jamie Foxx. Both Foxx and Sarsgaard, Marine non-commissioned officers who believe passionately in the Corps mission, are the steadying personalities that genuinely outshine Gyllenhaal’s depressing Swoff. They are believable bright spots in an otherwise dark movie, but even they are eventually caught up in the script’s attempt to expose everything that Swofford, the disaffected author, found unfair about his Marine Corps experience and unfulfilling about the war.
Broyles and Mendes use repetitive cinematic allusions to the oil that these American Marines are fighting for and protecting, first by placing signs over the reception tents at the Saudi airport that say “Oil,” inserting a snide comment from a Texas Marine who claims the White House’s connection to corporate oil interests back home are orchestrating the operation purely for personal gain, and just to make sure we don’t forget about that pesky oil, during the fleeting combat, there are scenes of an oily downpour, oil-drenched Marines, and Gyllenhaal’s chance encounter with a petroleum soaked horse on the battlefield. These images are obviously there for dramatic and political effect, but couldn’t they have at least found a camel?
After three days searching on foot for an Iraqi to kill and finding nothing but human charcoal, Swoff and Troy are sent out on a sensitive mission, but inexplicably left behind by their unit. In order to rejoin the battalion, they must cross a desert of magnificent dunes more likely seen in the Sahara, than in the southern approach to Kuwait City. They eventually find their fellow Marines in the middle of the desert, engaging in a nocturnal, orgiastic celebration of the war’s end, complete with cans of forbidden Budweiser, rap music, and wild gunfire. All that’s missing is the strippers. Even the always-disciplined Staff Sergeant Sieck seems to have lost his military bearing. And so too has the movie, but that was hours ago. As the final minutes tick by, Broyles offers up a “Where are they now?” series of silent vignettes, while Gyllenhaal’s monotone narrative tries to sum up the frustration of our first war in the Middle East when Swoff harkens back to the day and alludes to the war in Iraq by saying “We are still in the desert.”
Hollywood’s latest portrayal of the Gulf War, as seen through the eyes of a self-absorbed sniper, Jarhead is an unsatisfying series of clichés that gives the American public a narrow and cynical perspective on the human element in modern warfare.
–Brooks Tucker served as a Marine infantry-unit leader in the Persian Gulf War and is the author of Breach, the first novel about combat Marines in that war. He is a major in the Marine Corps Reserve.