Killing Time

If Jarhead, director Sam Mendes and writer William Broyles Jr.’s adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s 2003 Gulf War memoir, seems at all familiar — like, say, a DJ’s mash-up of Full Metal Jacket and Three Kings — there’s good reason for it. Swofford, 20 years old during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, writes in his book of his and his fellow Marines’ love of war movies — specifically Vietnam films such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket — which they drooled over the way one gawks at a centerfold. Soldiers are aroused by war movies “because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills,” Swofford writes. “Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real First Fuck.” To the Marine, there is no such thing as an anti-war film; any movie starring a man and his rifle is a romantic work of cinema full of money shots.

So, yes, by all means feel free to consider Jarhead a one-war-removed commentary about the current imbroglio in Iraq, especially toward the end of the movie (and the brief war), when Dartmouth-educated Fergus (Brian Geraghty) dances around a bonfire and shouts, “We never have to come back to this shit hole ever again!” Yet Jarhead also insists that it isn’t there to concern itself with foreign policy and politicians’ cynical intentions. When the Marines first touch down in Saudi Arabia, a lance corporal named Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) shouts, “First to fuckin’ fight!” and a cynical comrade, played by Lucas Black, wonders, “For what?” After a brief argument, Troy responds as any soldier must when handed a rifle and his marching orders: “Fuck politics.”

Ultimately, Jarhead is about the crippling tedium of anticipated battle, the madness brought on by endless hours and days and months spent waiting for that one second when you kill or get killed. Swofford, a reader of comics and Camus played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is our wry, rational guide through this minefield, and he tells the tale as if to prove that one doesn’t need a visible enemy in order to lose his shit. (A letter from a cheating girlfriend can do more damage than any bullet.) When first we meet Swofford, he’s a fresh-faced recruit getting his ass chewed by a drill instructor (Scott McDonald) who wants to know if Swofford’s Vietnam-vet daddy had “the balls to die there.” Swofford treats the ritual humiliation with the knowing distance of the guy who thinks himself superior to his superiors; he tells the D.I. that the only reason he’s in the Marines is because “I got lost on the way to college, sir.”

Jarhead contains familiar echoes of Full Metal Jacket, and like that film, it’s divided into a training half and a fighting half. There are whole scenes and moments cribbed from Stanley Kubrick’s movie: one in which a soldier named Fowler (8 Mile‘s Evan Jones) introduces a burned-up Iraqi soldier as his new best friend; a montage of TV interviews, during which the soldiers offer hollow clichés intended as ironic commentary; the D.I.’s barrage of insults that border on becoming a parodist’s monologue.

But Jarhead, which also stars Jamie Foxx as the sergeant who loathes the boredom of battle but loves the job, can’t be dismissed as derivative. It may feel familiar, but it’s a bleak and profound piece of work. As in the book, you’re in Swofford’s head as it begins to split apart, as he evolves (or devolves) from reluctant soldier into a weapon with a busted safety — which makes him, in the estimation of his commanding officers, the perfect Marine. He becomes addicted to the “pink mist” of the perfect kill, which, alas, he never experiences. This is a war film in which the only American casualties shown are those who have been destroyed from the inside out.

Categories: Movies