Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black, Chris Cooper, Skyler Stone, Wade Williams, Brian Geraghty
MPAA Rating: (for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content)
Running Time: 2:03
Release Date: 11/4/05
Review by Mark Dujsik
So many films have concentrated on the horrors of war, but none in my recent memory has dealt with the tedium. Such is the case with Jarhead, which fairly accurately depicts what I have heard of veterans' descriptions of war: Days, weeks, and, sometimes, months of pure boredom interrupted by moments of absolute, unadulterated terror. The focus of the film is the boredom and the mental and emotional strain it places on a unit of Marines as they wait and wait and wait to see the action they thought was intrinsically promised by the arrival of Operation Desert Shield and later Desert Storm. The film's uneventful premise is intriguing, and it is well executed by director Sam Mendes. The tone is one of detachment, which helps put us into the mindset of the lingering soldier, but with that, of course, comes an inherent problem—one that keeps it from involving us in the film beyond its mundane mood. So much time is spent on the general feeling of numbness that somehow the characters elude us in their routine. Considering the amount of time as we spend watching these Marines, very little is revealed into their individual natures. Perhaps that is point, but it still distances them from our understanding.
Anthony "Swoff" Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) has joined the Marines because, he mocks to his drill sergeant, "I got lost on the way to college." The sergeant proceeds to bang Swoff's head against a chalkboard. The real reason, it seems, is that he is a third-generation recruit and saw his father go off to Vietnam. After boot camp, Swoff finds himself part of a battalion headed by Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), a career military man who convinces the new recruit that there's a place for Swoff as a trumpet player. Of course, there is no position, and as training continues, Swoff finds himself taking on the role of a sniper with Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), who gave Swoff his first look into the workings of the unit, as his spotter. Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, which sends everyone into anticipation of the war to come. Soon, the platoon finds itself in Saudi Arabia, where they wait and scout the desert. Swoff waits for action, for letters from his girlfriend at home, and for the chance to do what he thought he had signed up for as the months go on. All the while, the lull in action slowly begins to change him.
The film is based on Swofford's memoir of the same name and sees its subject and the military men surrounding him as Marines first, men second, and individuals never. The film spends an ample amount of time developing the camaraderie amongst the unit, from fake initiation rites to more personal breakdowns. There is a tangible connection between them, highlighting the film's exercise as an observation of the soldiers' experience in distant participation in battle. As the time goes on and nary a shot is fired, the psychological toll becomes excruciating. After all, just because a war is going on doesn't mean these men don't worry about their girls at home. Instead, they are forced to imagine and, in one horrible case, witness what their loved ones are doing and with whom they are doing it back and the States. A "wall of shame" is assembled, with horror stories like "She said she loved me and left me for my brother," and we see them as men. These specific episodes play out as generalized depictions of common emotions and not so much as character revelations, but even so, they are still tough to watch. The buildup is torturous, and in one harrowing scene, it sends Swoff to the brink, holding a gun to his fellow Marine and itching to pull the trigger.
In most circumstances, actions such as this are defining, but in this situation, it is a characteristic of the strain placed upon him and cannot be considered indicative of character. One of the problems in a film full of inaction and in a situation where discussion of oneself is nearly nil is that we are left wondering who these people are. With all the time that elapses while they wait, why, in the end, do we not know them—and especially Swoff—beyond their role as Marines? One sequence which seems to hold the promise of such disclosures puts them all on camera for a media interviews, but they're all pigeonholed into a PR mentality. The reason, of course, is that they have come to realize they are ill-prepared for a ground war, and that fact is a haunting if unintentional foreshadowing for our Gulf War II era. The film is apolitical, though, and any such readings of the material in such a manner are merely interpretations. The malfunctioning equipment and a brief scene in which on Marine criticizes the political reasoning behind the conflict are simply passing realities. For these men, the fact remains: This is your job—deal with it.
That is the point of Jarhead. They are Marines, and as Swofford philosophizes in bookend statements, once a man has picked up a rifle in combat, he never really puts it down. The final voicing of this sentiment is one of loss, but we can only wonder what it is a loss of. Swoff has entered into our awareness as an enigma, and by the time the film comes to a close, he remains one. This is only to say that Jarhead lacks a personal connection to our entryway into this world, which would only help the material's resonance. Mendes, though, has crafted a thematically sound and evocative film on the nature of modern war that resonates nonetheless.
Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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