The bloodless battle
By Steven Snyder
Most American wars, declared and undeclared, have been given their due on the silver screen, from The Patriot to Black Hawk Down. Now, along comes Jarhead, perhaps the bravest and most complicated film about modern war and the Gulf War generation.
Based on the memoir of Marine sniper Anthony Swofford, who in 1990 served in Operation Desert Storm and whose book, ironically, was released just as the second Iraq war was erupting, Jarhead is a story that seems ripped from a different age. In fact, during this second year of an ongoing conflict that has already claimed thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, the relatively non-violent Jarhead could not be more different from todays quagmire.
Many critics of the film, which opened last weekend, seem to miss the very points Jarhead is trying to make. This is an anti-war war film, not in the sense that it is against war, but in the fact that there is no war to be found in its desolate environs.
Complicating things, it is also a film that distances itself from its characters because they are never given the opportunity to reveal who they really are, as Marines or men. And while some feel acclaimed director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road To Perdition) made the story jagged, moving it in fits and spurts, that was precisely his intention.
The premise is simple: Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) rushes through basic training for the U.S. Marines, becoming the jarhead stripped of his own identity and remolded as the perfect Marine. He rushes to join an elite unit as a skilled sniper only to realize that there is no war to run into, no one to kill and, really, no need for the rush. They are part of a modern war mechanism that no longer needs humans for combat.
Swoff, along with the calm-but-temperamental Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and the remainder of the unit are sent over to Iraq half a year before the war will starta war which, when it finally comes, will only last four days. They struggle to cope with the inanities of their day-to-day routines, the commonplace twisting into the absurd. Memories of loved ones mutate into jealousy. Meaningless preparations for combat eventually lead them to turn on each other.
When the war starts, things are even more illogical. The only combat they experience is an anonymous shelling from afar. The only casualties they encounter are from friendly fire. The only enemies they see are charred corpses hours after being bombed. Their most important mission is securing the burning oil fields, black soot raining down on them as they dig in the sand and listen to their commanding officer, Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) rave about the importance of the Marines.
Mendes brilliantly keeps hold of the films tone and relationships, while balancing it with stunning metaphorical visuals that would have made Kubrick proud. This story is one of absurdity that makes its presence known in different ways. Swoff and his comrades represent the typical Marine, molded from civilian to war machine, one that sputters and spurts when it is unused and ignored.
Together Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard create the films most memorable scene. Staring through their rifles at an Iraqi soldier, the one and only mission they are sent on during their 150 days in the desert, they get the order to shoot a split-second before being ordered to stand down. A bombing run is just about to come through, they are told, and will take care of their objective. And it is here that Troy lashes out, sobbing and screaming that all he wants is one shotone chance to kill and one chance for glory.
This, ultimately, is what Jarhead is all about. Instead of taking a political stance, Mendes has chosen to focus his movie on the impossible mission the military has handed these boys: to fight a war that denies them of their duty to kill, and subsequently, their ability to gain honor.