JARHEAD

Directed by Sam Mendes. USA. 2005.

Reviewed by Jen Johnston and Jamie Garwood


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In the world of film, there is no more difficult genre to master then the war movie. They come with a very specific set of perks and problems. The plus is that the stories can't fail to be moving. Ordinary people fighting extraordinary dangers for a greater good. Always amazing. The problems? Those "ordinary people" characters are usually so unbelievably macho, or so unrealistically sensitive that they come across as phony, keeping the audience from empathising with, or caring about them. Also, War movies are usually chock-full of violent images, which causes people to distance themselves from the story. To suceed, a war movie has to pull an audience back in with characters so genuine and sympathetic that it overpowers the violence of the story. It's a fine balance to strike. Movies that fail to acheive that balance fade from the memory in the time it takes to regret eating a Mega-Sized popcorn. Movies that find that blend become cinematic classics. Jarhead is a masterpiece, a future classic.

Jarhead is based on the bestselling memoir by Marine Anthony Swofford. It tells the story of Swofford's time in Saudi Arabia before and during the Gulf War. It paints a seemingly realistic picture of military life, where it's not all heroics, and macho exploits. Where in fact there is a lot more sitting around, then exploding of things.

Jake Gyllenhaal (The Day After Tommorrow) portrays Anthony Swofford. If you participate in any oscar pools, Jake's the one to put all your pennies on for Best Actor. What an incredible performance. Gyllenhaal escapes the typical war movie trap of being a one-dimensional character, making Swofford multi-layered and human, and his journey fascinating to watch. Gung ho at training, innocent naivete before being deployed, to downright cynisicim in the desert, Gyllenhaal makes him genuine, and complex. I loved his ability to communicate being brave in the face of fear, his touches of machismo overlying a sensitive soul. Gyllenhaal is a true chameleon, a magnetic rising star.

Saving Private Ryan was a skillfully constructed war film. The opening sequence of the D-Day invasion was hailed as "gritty," and "realistic." I however, found the opening 15 minutes of the movie so overflowing with guck that I was nauseous. Because of that guck I tuned out from the story. So by the time the heroic band found what they were looking for I was so disinvolved with the movie that I simply didn't care. As a result I forgot about the movie 10 minutes after I walked out of the theatre. I don't need to see body parts hurtling through the air to understand that war is violent. Violence for violence's sake adds  nothing to a story, diminishing it's power and entertainment value. Jarhead, on the other hand is able to put forth the same messages about the horrors of war with a simple scene of Gyllenhaal petting a horse. Jarhead is bold enough to tell a war story simply as it was, and allows the audience to make up their own mind about it's message, without bombarding us with over-the-top macho characters, guns firing every which way, and excessive amounts of red dye number five attempting to tell us how we should feel. 



Appropriate Ages: 15 and up
Parental Warning Bells: Offensive language/Nudity/Violent Scenes/Animal in Distress/Brief Views of Charred Bodies
Parental Film Barometer: If your child could handle M*A*S*H, or Tigerland they should be fine with this one

Jen Johnston



One thing to be said about this film - much like Sam Mendes career - is that it certainly is unexpected and not knowing where it is going to go. Mendes who wowed the world with a dark take on American suburbia followed up with a 1930s depression set Gangster adaptation. Both films were critically lauded and commercially successful, so where does his career go from here. Obviously you follow it up with a picture about the first Gulf War. But Mendes in spite of this sharp shift in subject matter does not disappoint; delivering another film that concentrates on the disintegration of the male psyche when put under extreme pressure by circumstances.  With Spacey in American Beauty you had a man whose career ends and so does his will to conform; with Hanks in Road to Perdition you have a man who loses his wife, youngest son and turns his back on the career that wants him dead.  There is a line here of survival of the fittest and what better place to put this motto to practice than a war zone.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Anthony Swofford (whose book the film is based on) a 20 year old soldier who enlists into the Marine Corps and the Sniper regiment.  We have the standard boot camp scenes which ends with the leaving for war and then when they get to Saudi Arabia, there is no war to fight and nothing to do but just sit and wait.  Swofford’s voiceover lists the things to do; ‘Discuss the difference between Cuban and Mexican…Crying…Masturbating…Reading letters from lost ones…Masturbating’ and the list goes on repeating.

In respect to this sort of scenario the film resembles closely to Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987) with the drill sergeant and how this breaks down the soldiers, and then when they leave for the desert they find there is no conflict of sorts to fight in.  Whereas Kubrick’s film showed the effects of violent action on American forces, Jarhead shows the effect of inactivity on the soldiers. This is a more internalised interpretation of war and how the inactivity leads to the men thinking about those they left behind and what they put in jeopardy (happiness, sex, companionship) and how the mind can run away with itself.  [This is put into sharp focus when a soldier receives a copy of The Deer Hunter from his wife which soon after cuts into a DIY porn shoot of her doing it with the neighbour intending to humiliate the soldier. This shows what sort of effect this Gulf War had on the people back home and how loved ones resented the fact that the men they loved were fighting in a nonsense war.]

Mendes is indebted to the work of Roger Deakins behind the camera and Walter Murch in the editing booth who both do stellar work, but Mendes comes into his own when the men are together in the tent as a group of equal minded men who share the cause. The second branding scene were Swofford leads the men in a chorus of question and answer leaves you imagining the men swarming on stage at the Donmar.  A lot of the scenes have a theatrical feel or staging about them where the men have to act for cameras (interviews and football match) or the macho image of the corp must be sustained (illegal Christmas party).

Gyllenhaal whose character arc goes through so many troughs and hills - from optimism to anger, maniac to heroic - gives an amazing performance. Swofford becomes the mature and respected one of the group who protects all around him and rises up next to his colleague Troy (Peter Saarsgard) who regresses from leader to second behind Swofford.  Jamie Foxx as Staff Sergeant Sykes gives an impressive supporting performance, which in any other year (but this the year of Clooney) would be spoken about in more glowing terms. 
As the soldiers return to the base and the streets are full of celebrating visitors, a veteran from Vietnam stumbles on the bus saying they did it and gave it to them congratulating them, but appearing more as a prophetic ghost for these Marines in 15 years time when they watch the current Gulf war; disillusioned and perplexed.
Swofford’s voiceover then replies; ‘Every war is different.  Every war is the same’.  A statement that signifies the difference of the battle but the outcome on the human psyche is the same.  The film does not intend to dismiss the American involvement of the present war but instead critique a past one and without resorting to cliché and showing you things you have never seen before, (an oil stained horse, the beautifully shot night lit by oil flames) the film succeeds.

The reaction to which has been negative in America, is it too soon to confront the past ghosts of a war that in hindsight was not a victory if it had to have sequel? 
 
 
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