Waiting for War in the Desert: Jarhead (2005)

“Welcome to the suck,” or the Marine Corp world of Jarhead. Anthony Swofford endured active duty in the Gulf War and then came home to write his bestselling memoir of the experience. And now we have the film version carefully crafted by Sam Mendes, who won fame after directing the Oscar-winning American Beauty, a satirical take on a dysfunctional American family in the suburbs. While many praised that film, I found it pretentious, and while I understand that recent American exploits in Middle East needs more movie treatment, Mendes’s, and perhaps Universal Studio’s painstaking concern to not slant Jarhead politically makes for an oddly contextless film. Since the filmmakers never explain the larger historical forces at work that helped create a war, we spend much of two hours watching some bored, horny Marines horse around in the Saudi Arabian desert. They don’t know why they are there, and neither do we, especially since filmgoers are likely to confuse this Gulf war with the more recent one.

Still, Swofford’s memoir does show you in grim detail what it is like to join the Marines, and Mendes piles on the war movie references. The opening scene of a sergeant screaming obscenities at Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) and smashing his head against a chalkboard refers to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Then, the recruits fire themselves up for war by yelling at the famous Ride of the Valkyries cavalry helicopter battle scene in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, (though I never screamed out “Kill ‘em!” in the theater as the men do here). Third generation enlistee Swoff realizes pretty quickly that he might have joined the wrong organization, so he attempts to make himself sick by drinking too much Maalox in the john, but then Jamie Foxx shows up as a sadistically playful Sergeant Sykes to whip him back into shape. Gyllenhaal’s character befriends diehard Troy, played by the ever-restrained actor Peter Sarsgaard, and they learn how to become elite STA snipers by reciting such lines as “This is my rifle. Without my rifle I am nothing.” Pretty soon Swoff and his chuckleheaded cronies disembark from a 747 to spend months and months training in the desert as part of Operation Desert Shield. There they hydrate, maintain “suspicious alertness,” put on and take off their gas mask suits, play football in the 120 plus temperatures, and gradually go crazy thinking of the possible infidelities of their girlfriends back in the states.

I imagine those involved in this project felt that they were creating an important depiction of American military intervention in the Middle East, but I found all of the “Hoorah” machismo sad and dumb, not to mention intensely neurotic. Jake Gyllenhaal has played much more subtle characters in films such as Donnie Darko, but here he’s mostly just frustrated, if not from problems with his girlfriend back home, then from his inability to get to shoot at any enemy combatants. When the film finally shifts to the combat of Desert Storm, then visually we get treated to backlit night scenes with burning oil wells in the distance, raining oil, and burned corpses, but as a war film, Swoff’s experience is oddly impotent, and that may be the point.

Jarhead effectively shows us the derangement that comes with being trained to kill and then not getting to, but I found the film unsatisfactory in part because the characters stay stunted. As career soldier Sergeant Sykes, Jamie Foxx talks of his love for the war, but in the context of this movie it is hard to see why. Without much chance to prove themself in battle, most of the characters regress to hysterics and pointless gestures such as shooting their machine guns in the air. The term “jarhead” refers to the near-bald buzz cuts these soldiers wear, the way their heads resemble jars that hold nothing inside but their military training. At one point Troy claims that war “burns the fat off our souls,” but the maturity that might come from testing themselves in combat never happens. Instead, their jarheads just get emptier as the film goes on.