Arresting, Eye-Opening Chronicle Of Life As A Soldier Finds War Funny, Sad, Good And Bad

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
“You want what for Christmas?”
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There's a moment early on in Jarhead, Sam Mendes' blackly comic adaptation of Anthony Swofford's warts-and-all book about active duty during the first Gulf War, that sets the stage for what's to come. A group of eager young Marine recruits are suffering through the sort of exhausting, screaming, nose-to-the-mud military training we've come to expect since Full Metal Jacket. During a brief break, the soldiers take in a movie, Francis Ford Copolla's seminal Apocalypse Now. It's the scene with the helicopters. As the attack choppers swoop in, Wagner's “Ride of the Valkyries” kicks in. The Marines are going nuts. They're screaming, cheering, humming along with the soundtrack, aping every movement, every line of dialogue. This is their idea of war. And they love it. But, just as things are about to get good, the film is cut off. The lights come on. Saddam Hussein's troops have invaded Kuwait, and it's time to ship out. The fantasy is over.

Jarhead is an amazingly canny examination of what war is really like. The film constantly plays off of and confounds audience expectations of how a war film is supposed to be. Gung-ho ticketholders expecting a deliriously bloody shoot-'em-up along the lines of Apocalypse Now will–like the soldiers in Jarhead–have the rug pulled out from under them.

Jarhead is not a movie about war. It is a movie about soldiers. It's a subtle distinction, but an important one. And, despite what movies have told you, soldiers spend most of their time bored, lonely and dreaming about doing nothing but going home. Anthony Swofford, who served during Operation Desert Shield and its inevitable offspring Operation Desert Storm, set out to chronicle what modern warfare is like for a soldier on the ground–all the sad, humorous, crackpot details.

You see, life for soldiers changed quite a bit during the first Gulf War. War was suddenly fought with computers and bombers, not by boots and rifles. Territory that would have taken weeks to conquer in Vietnam could now be traversed in a matter of minutes. War had finally caught up with the videogame industry.

In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Swofford, a scared, directionless kid who ends up in the U.S. Marines on the tail end of the '80s. “What are you doing here?” asks one drill sergeant (in slightly less polite language). “I got lost on the way to college, sir,” is Swofford's only excuse. Happily, the film provides Gyllenhaal his best role since 2002's The Good Girl.

Having survived the grueling drudgery of boot camp, Swofford and his band of Marine snipers are shipped over to the Kuwaiti desert, where they are plopped into the middle of the world's biggest sandbox. Their job: patrol a whole lot of nothing in the middle of nowhere. “Welcome to the suck” is their oft-repeated motto.

Despite their eagerness to engage in the glory of combat, many of the soldiers begin to wonder what the point is. A smart-ass southern boy (Lucas Black all-grown-up from Sling Blade) points out that they're spending a lot more time defending Kuwaiti oil wells than American freedoms. Swofford's best friend (Peter Sarsgaard, Kinsey) informs his fellow snipers that their jobs are all but obsolete. In today's fast-paced world of warfare, by the time snipers trudge to within 1,000 yards of their targets, the war will have moved a mile into the horizon.

Director Sam Mendes, still hot off his debut film American Beauty, shoots Jarhead with an arresting visual style. The film, you must understand, is largely about nothing. Much like the soldiers in M*A*S*H, these young recruits are occupied mostly with staving off boredom and insanity. Days drag into weeks, weeks drag into months, and it becomes a growing question whether or not these soldiers will ever even get to fire their weapons. The film understands that war–no matter the political, philosophical or religious grounds–is a situation of total chaos and insanity. Mendes beautifully captures the nearly surreal nature of this combat-fueled craziness. Football games played in full gas masks, a fire-scarred battlefield literally raining oil, a lone horse wandering though the hellish oil fields: Jarhead is filled with indelible, off-kilter images.

Despite the occasional point of view expressed by the diverse soldiers, Jarhead is amazingly free of polemic. War protesters from the blue states will find plenty to bolster their arguments here. At the same time, patriotic NRA members from the red states will salute the “hoo-rah” pride of Jarhead. The film can be viewed from just about any perspective for one simple reason–it has the ring of total truth.

Can war be horrifying and funny? Can soldiers be terrified and proud? Can the military be good and bad? According to the smartly crafted, blisteringly funny Jarhead, the answer is a resounding, “Sir, yes, sir!”

“Does this helmet make me look fat?”

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