Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: William Broyles, Jr.
Like a lot of war movies, Jarhead lacks the standard three-act narrative arc common to most (American) motion pictures; I imagine that it's because war itself, at least from a soldier's point of view, lacks a neat setup-conflict-denouement structure, playing out instead as a disjointed series of random incidents. Jarhead's problem is that its scattered episodes are too many and don't really add up to too much.
Above all, Jarhead, the story of a group of Marines set during the First Gulf War, is about waiting. Gradually being rendered obsolete by technological advances, these Marines—highly trained snipers—seem to always be one step behind the battle, and thus, though they literally see plenty of action, they don't get to participate in any of it. Surrounded by conflagration and explosions, they are but inactive observers; what are they, journalists? Hell no, they're Marines (ooo-rah!), but by the time they have a shot set-up the war has moved on and, consequently, Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal, underrated) and Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, underused), despite their frequent masturbation, have a serious case of blue balls. (Sharpshooting blue balls, that is!) They're ready to kick Iraqi ass—to shoot fuckers and blow shit up—but they find themselves left protecting Saudi oil fields from nothing and no one. As Swofford explains: "We patrol the empty desert...we throw hand grenades into nowhere, we navigate imaginary minefields, we fire at nothing...this is our labor—we wait." Titles appear at the bottom of the screen that count the time-passed up to the minute.
Swoff (the film is based on the book by Anthony Swofford) et al. came to the war expecting to kill, and not having any Iraqis to shoot is a maddening anticlimax, for both solider and audience. It puts the latter in a uniquely uncomfortable position—I don't really want to sit and root for Iraqis to get a brain full of bullets, but a bit into Jarhead I felt I'd take what I could get. (I would guess that, for some soldiers, that's the nature of the war experience—keeping sane by doing what you're supposed to be doing, your job.)
The soldiers feel cheated because none of them signed on for an actionless wait. (The audience feels the same—didn't you see those trailers with the Kanye song and Jamie Foxx?) They're a generation of boys raised on movies, and their understanding of war—as action-packed set-piece—comes only from the cinema. So, Jarhead is a movie about movies. The early bootcamp sequences are brutal and, from the very first shot, blatantly recall Full Metal Jacket, from the name-calling drill seargeant to the symmetrical composition. Meanwhile the training simulations are consciously cinematic in a postmodern sort of way; a scene in which the troops are crawling through mud beneath barbed wire, with a sergeant firing shots overhead, looks like the "Making Of" featurette for another film. And the boys are always talking movies: when the oil fields are on fire, a young man asks if anyone has seen Giant; when wearing his gasmask, Troy starts doing a Darth Vader impression. As they're so amped up by a cinema-crazy (or crazy-cinema) culture, Jarhead also makes the suggestion that all war movies are inherently pro-war—in a scene from Swofford's book, a room full of Marines wildly, frighteningly cheers-on the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence from Apocolypse Now, showing that even an incelebratory and haunting picture can really get soldiers riled up for violence. (In a bit of delicious metacinema, the legendary Walter Murch edited Jarhead as he did Apocolypse Now.) They get similarly psyched for a screening of The Deer Hunter; the grisliest, goriest "anti-war" film still almost always features rousing action sequences, a sympathetic protagonist, and/or an attractive sense of comraderie, brotherhood and courage. If war is hell, it still turns boys into brave and admirable men.
But Swoff, our leading man, is not exactly your typical sensitive intellectual as sympathetic soldier; he's actually kind of unlikeable, especially since all of the bellumus interruptus is driving him insane, as in a frightening scene in which he threatens to shoot a fellow soldier. But near the end of film, Swofford whines: "are we ever gonna get to kill anybody?" And, against all better judgement, I found myself feeling sorry for him. (And for Troy as well, whose breakdown following a called-off attack is devestating.)
Maybe somehow Jarhead succeeds where other war movies fail. It's not very glamorous, it's not very glorious, it's not very anything, except of course long, uneven, and choppy, the American Pie of Desert Storm movies in which the "some" in gettin' some is a confirmed kill. Maybe Mendes should have considered that most movies contain action because it's a solid ingredient in good storytelling, particularly in war stories. That is, for a little modus tollens: if all war movies are pro-war, and you want to make a movie that's anti-war, then don't make a war movie. Jarhead is by no means bad, as it features many memorable sequences and performances; it's just not very good at tying them all together.