"No Combat. No Politics. And a Naked Marine in a Santa Claus Hat. What Kind of War Movie is This?" -- Entertainment Weekly Cover Blurb, Nov. 4, 2005
" … But it's something of a joke to think that you can in any way separate the war in Iraq from politics—there would be no boots on the ground, and no bodies under the ground, if it weren't for politics, and it is a mistake to imply that a political viewpoint is a narrow one, or, somehow, a less creative one. Not to mention that denying the impact of politics on a war story—on this war story—is itself a political act." -- Nancy Franklin, on the FX series Over There in “On Television: The Yanks are Coming,” The New Yorker, Aug. 01 2005
Directed by Sam Mendes, Jarhead is based on the memoirs of Anthony Swofford, a Marine scout/sniper who served in the first Gulf War as one of the hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in Saudi Arabia to help protect it from Iraqi aggression. Which meant that Swofford waited … and waited … and waited.
The gambit of making a film about the last war as a way to talk about the current war is an old one – M*A*S*H may be set in Korea, but it's about Vietnam; Grand Illusion's World War I drama has as much to say about the Europe it was made in as it does about the Europe it was set in. Jarhead looks back to the early '90s and war with Iraq, but it never really looks at the fact we are back at war with Iraq; what you get is a film that feels less authentic than it does opportunistic, less conscious than crafted, a movie that wants to sell itself as having ripped-from-the-headlines urgency even as it carefully, daintily, dances around fresh graves.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swofford, who goes from basic training to sniper duty in a swift series of events that culminate in his walking through the arid air of the Middle East hoping to shoot at someone, hoping to not be shot at. Swofford's spotter, Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) is a casual, constant presence – level-headed, unimpressed – and helps buffer Swofford from Swofford's own worst impulses to act up, act out rage against a machine that has him slopping out the latrine. They’re overseen by Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), a hard-bitten lifer with no patience for sloppiness or foolishness.
Part of the distant feel of Jarhead may come in its very self-concious approach: In large part, it's a war movie about war movies. Early on, Swofford gets a short, sharp shock of an introduction to the Corps in boot camp from a Drill Sergeant who's obviously cribbing from the R. Lee Ermey/Full Metal Jacket playbook; waiting Stateside for deployment to the Gulf, Swofford and his peers watch Apocalypse Now's chopper attack sequence en masse, singing along with 'Ride of the Valkyries.' On the civilian airliner taking them to the Gulf, Troy and 'Swoff' chat while, in the background, a fellow Marine reads a paperback edition of Catch-22; Working in the Saudi heat as The Doors blare in the background, Swofford's wearied by the cliché. "That's Vietnam music! Can't we get our own music?"
As it turns out, Swofford can't even get his own war. As he practices putting holes in paper with a rifle from very far away, Swofford waxes rhapsodic about how he longs for a moment of "pink mist" – the pleasure of taking, and making, a perfect head shot on some enemy combatant; training and conditioning and a thousand war movies have made him eager to kill. But instead the men are forced into playing football in full MOPP anti-gas suits – to demonstrate for the press how they'll be able to do their jobs even if there's a poison gas attack – even as they sweat and grow heat-addled and bitch about how the advanced technology that allows them to take a sip of water from their canteen while suited up without any exposure to airborne nerve agents just doesn't work worth a good goddamn. The football game ends with a pyramid of half-clad Marines miming sex acts on each other as Sykes gets the media the hell out of there. Held in place and bored, all Swoff and his fellow Marines want to do is get their war on. That doesn't happen.
Which is another odd element in Jarhead; it's kind of hard to sit in your seat and look up at the screen and feel bad for Swofford's agony that he might die from boredom in the Middle East when the headlines outside the theater bring home the ugly truth that there are 2,000 + families whose kids and fathers, husbands and wives and boyfriends and girlfriends are actually dead. Sarsgaard's Troy is detached and cool about the world that exists outside of the range of his spotter's scope: "Fuck politics. We're here. All the rest is bullshit." The movie Swofford seems to go along with this. Reading Jarhead, you realize the real Swofford may not be in agreement; in the third chapter, Swofford offers how he and his fellow Marines " … joke about having transferred from the Marine Corps to the Oil Corps, or the Petrol Battalion … being deployed to protect oil reserves and the rights and profits of certain American companies, many of which have direct ties to the White House and oblique financial entanglements with the secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, and the commander in chief, George Bush, and the commander's progeny."
But Mendes (and the screenwriter who adapted Swofford's memoir, William Broyles Jr.) avoid any similar rash, rude moment of reality; Mendes has had a similar track record with his other films. American Beauty was a satire of American culture that felt real enough to shock but was fake enough to laugh at. Kevin Spacey’s moral free-fall never hit us quite as hard as it could have because we were laughing at how Peter Gallagher and Annette Bening were nothing like us. Road to Perdition offered audiences the pitch of Tom Hanks as a hit man – who, it turns out, only killed people who already deserved it. Jarhead is technically majestic – edited by Walter Murch, who cut Apocalypse Now and shot by Roger Deakins, a longtime Coen brothers collaborator who also shot the Gulf War drama Courage Under Fire. (It's an interesting counterpoint to Swofford's complaint about recycling the music of other conflicts: Murch is a Vietnam editor! Can't we have our own film editor?)
With Jarhead, Mendes has another film where he's willing to tackle the shape of the material but not the actual weight of it, selling the sizzle while making sure no messy blood leaks out of the steak. The performances are thin as well. Gyllenhaal's Swofford is a walking contradiction: A smart idiot, an articulate man who seems to only speak with wisdom in voice-over, a passive presence complaining about inaction. Sarsgaard's Troy is a more interesting character – you briefly fantasize about what kind of movie we might have gotten if Jarhead had been about Troy instead of Swofford – but Swofford's story keeps pushing Troy aside. Foxx has a real gift for portraying competent mania, homicidal charm and fearsome good humor (in a more risky world, Warner Brothers would sign him up to play The Joker in any subsequent Batman films) but again, the script and the film's forced perspective turn him into a hollow shell that can be posed as required: The Hard-Ass Lifer Action Figure, saying 'Ouuu-Ra!" and "Get Some!" as if someone were pulling a string in his back.
Many reviews will compare Jarhead to Three Kings, David O. Russell's 1999 Gulf War action-caper that sent George Clooney and cast scrambling after gold in the Gulf and tacked on a feel-good ending designed to send you into the post-movie sunshine feeling happy. The scary fact is that Three Kings had a wholly invented plot that enabled it to speak about broader issues even as it, ultimately, pulled its punch; Jarhead may be based on fact, but deliberate decisions by Mendes and Broyles mean it has no punch to pull. What kind of war movie is Jarhead? The wrong one, at the wrong time.