The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, September 30, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Jarhead

Originally published 11/4/05
Full review behind the jump


: Sam Mendes
: William Broyles, Jr., based on the book by Anthony Swofford
: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher
: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Dennis Haysbert, Evan Jones, Brian Geraghty, Laz Alonso, Lucas Black

There’s a greater cost to war than just the body count and the bill for equipments used. To launch a war means to prepare for a war, which means to take thousands upon thousands of ordinary young men and condition them to, as Patton described it, not die for his country, but make the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

It is not ordinary for a man to stay focused on his job as bombs whistle through the air towards him, nor is it ordinary for him to not only accept an order to take someone’s life, but in doing so, hope dearly that he’ll score a perfect head shot and see the fabled “pink mist”. Which is why even a relatively “clean” geopolitical dust-up like 1991’s Desert Storm, where an overwhelming international force drove the Iraqi Army from Kuwait and ground operations lasted only four days, has a permanent impact because you had to ready all those soldiers for the worst, and they don’t just change back.

, based on Anthony Swofford’s memoir, is perhaps the first major American motion picture to focus on that cost – and as a result is a curious sort of war movie, one that deals with the frustrating simmer of training, the sense that life-or-death struggle is imminent, and then the conflicted emotions that result when you have to face how your anticipation of the violence had made you yearn for it.

There’s also something about the different wars of each American generation, and the nobility of each cause. The soldiers make the odd clumsy attempt to mouth different sides of the issue, and it doesn’t work because this isn’t really about whether or not the Gulf War came about for the “right” reasons. The point is – it’s a war, and it alters the soldiers equally whether it’s a “good” war or not. Although director Sam Mendes’ beautiful facility with the momentum of classic drama in pictures like
American Beauty and Road to Perdition doesn’t apply so well here, he does know what kind of movie he’s trying to make, and the audience is not immune to its own version of what the troops go through. Which makes the movie successful on its terms, but an unusual experience.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swofford, or “Swoff”, and we catch up with him in Marine basic training. These scenes don’t escape the long shadow of Full Metal Jacket, from the apocalyptic temper of the drill instructor to the fetishizing of the Marine rifle (the same loving ode: “This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine.” makes an appearance.) Swoff seems not without intellect or soul – brief expository grace notes tell of a history of service with the men in his family, and battles with depression among the women. When the DI asks him what he’s doing here, his answer is concise and honest to a fault: “I got lost on the way to college.” For this, he gets his head slammed into a blackboard.

But he shows a degree of pluck and what you might call an incomplete sense of self – he is a vessel into which the most specialized of training can be poured. He is recruited by Marine lifer Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) to join an elite unit of snipers. Swoff’s partner is to be the enigmatic Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), whose hunger for some self-held ideal of the Marine experience just grows as the story unfolds.

The call to deploy in the Saudi desert comes – but this is not Desert Storm. This is Desert Shield. Within fifteen minutes of touching down Uncle Sam has 5,000 troops assembled, which is impressive, but their job is simply to train and wait in the miserable desert heat. Train and wait, for eight months.

They’re told that Saddam’s Republican Guard contains the fiercest warriors in the known world. They’re told that biological and chemical weapons are to be used indiscriminately, so they should practice putting on this suit and that mask, and please take these experimental pills and sign a waiver to the effect that you’re doing it voluntarily. On the eve of battle they’re massed by a great berm of sand, ordered to dig sleeping holes, and told that death awaits them on the other side. 30,000 casualties are predicted for the first day of combat.

And as the days drag on the anxiety, the lack of knowledge, the restlessness, the repetitiveness of even the most vulgar distractions, the crumbling of relationships back home, all wear on the troops. You’ll feel restless, too, wondering what the movie’s getting up to. It works more as a cinematic argument than an emotional journey, although there’s spots that hit you in the gut; like when Swoff finds himself sitting in a circle of burnt corpses, and it looks for all the world like the one sitting next to him is going to tilt his head up and speak any second now.

All the troops have to help them process experiences like this is The Corps, its code and all its rituals. They watch Apocalypse Now and interact rowdily with the screen like it’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When Robert Duvall strafes the fishing village to the strains of Wagner, they cheer every kill. These are normal young men, they really are.

In fact, at times they look a little too good. Gyllenhaal and Foxx, however they might effectively embody their characters, lack that indefinable edge, they don’t look like they’ve really been kept up nights. They have unerring instincts for where their characters’ heads are at, watch how Swoff must negotiate a sniper mission co-opted by an arrogant officer (Dennis Haysbert) – how he must deal with his own feelings and the more dangerous disappointment of Troy. Sarsgaard’s performance – bottled up except for a few desperate moments like this – is crucial, as it contains the true emotional landscape of the picture. He knocks it out of the park.

This is Mendes’ first feature without the late brilliant cinematographer Conrad Hall. Now he is working with Roger Deakins, no slouch as a substitute (Kundun, all the Coen Bros’ films since Barton Fink). The blinding flat white of the desert is captured well but is not new – the night scenes are better. Once the conflict has begun, and they march through bare moonscapes lit by flaming oil wells, crossing the scorched “Highway of Death”, having petroleum rain from the sky on them, the point need not be spelled out any more – these men are walking through hell. They’ll be out soon alive and intact, thank goodness. But they’ll remember.


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