Phil on Film Index

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Review - Jarhead

War may be hell but, for the young marines in Jarhead, it seems that not going to war is even worse. Anthony Swofford, who served as a marine sniper in the first Gulf War, wrote about his experiences in his best-selling memoir Jarhead, which differed from other war memoirs by focusing on the boredom, frustration and fear of marine life rather than traditional acts of bravery. Swofford came back from the war without firing his rifle once and his book details the psychological implications of training a group of testosterone-filled young men into tightly wound killing machines, and then depriving them of an enemy to kill.

All of this made for an interesting and enlightening read, but with its subjective tone and complete lack of action or heroism it didn’t seem like ideal Hollywood material. Nevertheless, Sam Mendes has decided that he is the man for this particular challenge and Jarhead could be seen to form a kind of loose trilogy with his previous films American Beauty and Road to Perdition; each being films in which this British director attempts to subvert traditional American subjects and values. For Jarhead Mendes has surrounded himself with exceptional collaborators (Roger Deakins, and Walter Murch) and has enlisted a fine group of young actors headlined by Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx; but the presence of all this talent on board only serves to make the final film an even greater disappointment.
Jarhead is a war movie which finds itself in the unusual position of containing no war. Instead Mendes and his screenwriter William Broyles Jr are faced with the problem of building their film around a series of non-events and anticlimaxes, and it’s an obstacle they never satisfactorily overcome. However, what ultimately scuppers Jarhead is not the lack of a war, but the lack of a point.

“Fuck politics. We're here. All the rest is bullshit” says Swofford’s buddy Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) when another member of his unit begins questioning the rights and wrongs of the US involvement, and it’s a statement which Mendes seems to have taken to heart. Jarhead never attempts to broach the wider issue of the war, a war from which the consequences are still being felt today, and the lack of any political shading or larger meaning to this film is perplexing. Once Mendes ducks that particular issue it’s hard to ascertain what, if anything, Jarhead has to say. Instead of delivering an anti or even pro-war stance, it seems that Mendes wants to give us an straightforward documentary-style look at the life of a marine; but the subject matter isn’t really interesting enough to sustain it.

Broyles’ adaptation is unambitious and simplistic. He does stick closely to many of the events depicted in the book, lifting a number of incidents and pieces of dialogue verbatim, but he fails to develop any sort of connecting narrative thread. Broyles also excises the flashback structure of the book which gave Swofford a distanced vantage point at which to view his experiences, and this alteration is another case of the film eliminating any sense of resonance. We are left with a series of almost self-contained sequences which don’t really develop our understanding of this war or the people fighting it.

One scene perfectly reflects that point; in which Swofford and his fellow grunts are ordered to play football for the TV reporters while fully clad in protective garb. The game quickly degenerates into a farce with the marines all stripping and clambering onto each other and providing embarrassing portrait for the cameras. However, in the book Swofford made it clear that this incident was their way sticking it to the authorities and unleashing all their pent-up aggression: “We aren’t field-fucking Kuehn: we’re fucking the press-pool colonel, and the sorry, worthless MOPP suits…..and President Bush and Dick Cheney and the generals, and Saddam Hussein…” he states as part of a magnificent rant. But the film gives us none of that, and instead plays the scene as a comic aside with a lot of strangely homoerotic grappling replacing all the pointed anger Swofford exhibited.

Mendes seems to lack any taste for the real messiness and insanity of war and, surprisingly for a director with his theatrical background, his depiction of the interaction between the central figures is weak. In fact the underdeveloped characters appear as little more than figures whose only purpose is to be placed by Mendes in one of his endless artful tableaux - which brings us to the one real triumph of Jarhead. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is simply extraordinary; with his bleached-out view of the daytime scenes brilliantly depicting the searing heat of the desert, and the night scenes providing some spectacular, almost surreal, shots of the burning oil fields and endless dunes. Deakins’ stunning work makes sure Jarhead is always a feast for the eyes, if not the mind.

Jarhead does make a little progress in the final half hour when the troops begin the long march into Iraq and Swofford and Troy finally get close to seeing some action. The single best scene in the film, in which Swofford is moments away from his first kill, occurs in the final third and the sight of the troops marching through the rain, half-blinded by the crude oil falling from the sky has a vivid quality. Unfortunately this section of the film is also where Mendes tries moralise about the effects of war and the sight of charred bodies and a dying horse covered in oil seem to be reaching for a sense of pathos the film hasn’t earned.

The cast are fine, although they’re given little to work with. Sarsgaard is the standout performer here with his nicely controlled performance building to one of the film’s most memorable moments after their first chance of a kill is foiled. Jamie Foxx offers solid and amusing support and Lucas Black is the pick of the actors in Swofford’s unit. Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert are among the familiar faces who are underused in little more than cameo roles, but Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Swofford himself isn’t entirely successful. Gyllenhaal is rather distant and emotionless in the lead role and his non-performance leaves something of a vacuum at the centre of the film. As we have seen before, Gyllenhaal is more than capable of bringing great empathy to his roles, but his attempt to depict Swofford’s desensitisation results in an oddly awkward and surprisingly unlikeable performance.

Jarhead is quite good on the details and peculiarities of Swofford’s memoir and it successfully conveys aspects such as the endless worrying over the faithfulness of wives and girlfriends, the fights borne of frustration, the frequent masturbation; but this isn’t enough to make a film. Mendes is a director who is more concerned with the aesthetics of his work than the humanity of it and I think it is becoming increasingly clear that the success of American Beauty (overrated, but still Mendes’ best) had more to do with the strength of Alan Ball’s screenplay than the direction.

Ultimately Jarhead’s attempt to portray the tedium and frustration of marine life only succeeds in producing a tedious and frustrating film. It makes several references to other superior war movies - such as Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and Apocalypse Now - but it only highlights the fact that Jarhead isn’t giving us anything we haven’t seen before, and it pales in comparison with David O Russell’s messy but admirable Gulf War movie Three Kings. Russell’s film was made from the gut and genuinely attempted to engage with some of the contentious issues surrounding the war, while Mendes’ more coldly cerebral approach sees Jarhead marching in circles - no clear direction, no end in sight.

Welcome to the suck indeed.