In August 1990 Anthony "Swoff" Swofford, a 20-year-old US marine, was deployed to the deserts of Saudi Arabia in preparation for the First Gulf War. Twelve years later his memoir of that time - entitled Jarhead - became an instant bestseller. Director Sam Mendes' (American Beauty) adaptation follows "Swoff" (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) from his tentative enlistment ("I got lost on the way to college") to his acceptance into the elite scout sniper unit and his deployment to the gulf. It charts the experiences of his unit during the grinding 5 month long wait before hostilities commenced, and the brief and utterly anticlimactic war that followed.
Jarhead is a fascinating and thoroughly original examination of the plight of the ordinary soldier in modern warfare. It is also a deeply frustrating, maddeningly evasive and ultimately self-defeating piece of nihilism.
The movie's principal problem is an inability to decide what it wants to be: satire, expose, fond memoir, human drama or ironic existential comment. Jarhead flirts with all of them but commits to none, always seeming on the point of saying something meaningful or important and then backing down at the last moment.
At least part of this lack of focus can be blamed on the book itself. Swoffard's account is a non-linear, highly emotional and deeply existential inner journey. While this style has the room to develop in book, when it is flattened into a linear movie plot it is bound to cause some problems.
Wherever the blame lies, the film's lack of clarity of vision tends to rob it of emotional resonance and blunt the impact of its many powerful scenes. One moment the film seems to be winking knowingly at you through a layer of finely worked irony, the next it's slamming into you, wrecking ball style, with a prosaic and usually unnecessary aphorism.
Still, the film does offer fascinating insights into the largely undocumented experiences of ground troops during the Gulf War. While the physical details of the conflict are expertly rendered, it's the psychological insights that offer the juiciest tidbits.
In contrast to the anti-war paradigm of Vietnam, these soldiers can't wait to get into battle. They are openly and unapologetically bloodthirsty, watching famous scenes from films like Apocalypse Now to pump themselves up for the coming conflict. Much of the frustration that soon becomes the movie's pervading mood comes from the lack of opportunity to make use of the deadly skills they have won with such hard labour. They feel they are killing machines, plonked in the desert and left to rust.
The filmmakers have made a good deal of noise about the film's depictions of camaraderie and loyalty - the rather tired "brotherhood of warriors" shtick - but its depictions of the less glamorous aspects of modern warfare - boredom, sexual frustration, infighting - are far more original and interesting.
Though its topics may be unglamorous, the movie is still a visual treat. This is largely due to a crew that boasts industry masters like director of photography Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption and Fargo) as well as production designer Dennis Grasner and editor Walter Murch - both double Oscar winners. With the help of the world famous effects agency Industrial Light and Magic, they have recreated the Gulf in breathtaking and beautiful detail.
The movie also features solid performances from the cast. Though all involved have done better work before, there are no significant weak points. There is some particularly good chemistry between Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgard - helped no doubt by their longstanding off screen friendship (in fact Sarsgard is dating Jake's older sister, Maggie). It's always a pleasure to see Jamie Foxx onscreen, and he brings both maturity and magnetism to his role as Staff Segeant Sykes. If anything Foxx is wasted on this rather small role, but he certainly makes the most of it.
But, for all it's strong points, the movie somehow comes out as far less than the sum of it's parts. A film doesn't necessarily need a strong central message to succeed (just look at the movies of Jim Jarmusch), but in the case of Jarhead - such a message or theme might have afforded the movie some much needed backbone. Instead it flips and flops around, never committing to saying anything definite. This is a great pity since many of the half formed messages that emerge out of the fog are bold and original. This only adds to the frustration of watching - tainting the whole project with a sense of wasted potential.
So is it worth seeing? Yes, flawed as it is, it is still the most original war movie for at least a decade. Just don't go in expecting any typical war movie paradigms. There are no gung-ho rescue missions, no spectacular firefights to get your pulse racing. In this war the greatest enemies are frustration and the creeping sense that the ordinary soldier is no longer expendable, but superfluous, and that, for most of us, is a bitter pill to swallow.
- Alistair Fairweather