A film review by Craig J. Koban

RANK: # 8


2005, R, 122 mins.

Tony Swofford: Jake Gyllenhaal / Troy: Peter Sarsgaard / Staff Sgt. Sykes: Jamie Foxx / Kruger: Lucas Black / Lt. Col. Kazinski: Chris Cooper / Maj. Lincoln: Dennis Haysbert /

Directed by Sam Mendes /  Written by William Broyles Jr /  Based on the book by Anthony Swofford

"The best victory is when the opponent surrenders of its own accord before there are any actual hostilities...It is best to win without fighting."

- Sun Tzu

Perhaps if this ancient Chinese war tactician and philosopher had an opportunity to see JARHEAD, then maybe he would have retracted this tenant from his immortal work, THE ART OF WAR.  If anything, the combatants in Sam Mendes’ JARHEAD – one of the best war films of recent memory – reveal that they are not so much mentally and emotionally jarred by the actual military campaigns themselves, but rather the inaction that leads up to them.  This is not a war film in the conventional sense.  It’s more about the pathos in yearning to go to war and fight for your country and essentially being impaired to do so…or just having to wait too damn long.  The madness or, as Marlon Brando once described in another great war film, “the horror” of war is not so much in the bloodshed and carnage of the battles, but more in the fevered anticipation of them.

Consider one key moment in the film where a group of eager, trigger happy soldiers gather and watch an extended scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW, still to this day one of the finest of all war films.  JARHEAD wisely shows the marines watching a crucial moment in the film where the American helicopters fly into the Vietnamese village and slaughter everyone and everything in their path with their mighty war machine.  This extended sequence in Coppola’s film - one of the all-time great virtuoso scenes of sustained mayhem and action - makes its young soldier viewers hoot and holler at the screen with a sort of delirious intensity and manic energy that is usually reserved for fans at a live professional wrestling match. 

The point here is clear – these soldiers want to go to war so badly and emulate those famous moments in their favourite war films that they can taste it.  There is a sort of homicidal desire on their part to kill in their eyes, so much so that they would be willing to do just about anything to get that chance.  It’s no small wonder that when they do not get that opportunity that their frustration soon gives way to pathos, which is usually reserved for the battlefield.

That is the subtle brilliance of JARHEAD.  It is a masterstroke work in the genre for the way in sort of reinvents the conventions of it.  Sure, it has all of the necessary prerequisite elements that have made up countless other past war films – a ragtag group of All-American boys that want to be all that they can be; the few soldiers that get along fine and the few that have heated rivalries; the hot-headed and mean-spirited staff drill sergeant; the stories of the soldier’s loved ones back home; the strife that the soldiers face for not being at home when they really want to be in the first place…and so on and so on.  The key here is that -  in Mendes’ hands - his war film is not just made up of the same nuts and bolts of other films.  JARHEAD takes these components and puts them all together to create a much different narrative and thematic machine.

The film has one singular effect on the viewer – it is work that is punctuated by obsessive boredom of its warriors.  Other war films, ever the great ones, revel in their respective details on how the men in war are driven to the point of madness by the needlessness and insanity of all of the slaughtering that they perpetrate as a result of their training and skills.  JARHEAD achieves the opposite vibe – the soldiers in this film are bored, depressed, and melancholy because they can’t use their training to kill like they want to. 

What’s worse - Going to war and seeing the bloodshed that you have caused or not going to war and instead become increasingly petulant, impatient, and fanatical because you are not given the opportunity to fight?  JARHEAD would easily argue the latter.  This is a war film with hardly any real visceral action in it.  The men in this film are teased like little animals.  They are constantly reinforced that war is imminent and that they will be crucial ingredients and participants to successful missions.  When this does not carry forward to fruition, it’s not hard to see why some of the soldiers suffer from some paradoxical withdrawal symptoms, which only heightens their sense of worthlessness and redundancy.  This is the WAITING FOR GODOT of wartime films.  As one soldier keenly observes late in the film, “4 days, 4 hours, and one minute.  That was my war.  And I did not even get a chance to use my rifle.”

JARHEAD is also decidedly different in its geopolitical landscape and historical subject matter.  We have been completely inundated with works based in the World Wars and Vietnam conflicts, but JARHEAD gets its inspiration from the much more recent Persian Gulf War of the early 90’s.  Mendes bases his film on the memoirs of Anthony Swofford, who was one of the first in a long line of grunts to be sent over to the Gulf.  I have seen two other great Gulf War films from two drastically different prerogatives.  The first was THREE KINGS, a work of strong social and political satire of the CATCH-22 variety.  The second was the HBO feature LIVE FROM BAGHDAD, a war film that was refreshingly told from the journalistic viewpoint.  JARHEAD now approaches the war through an even more intimate and intrinsically fascinating perspective. 

This film is not about the war battles, the enemies, the friendly casualties, or the governments involved.  It is neither ostensibly pro-war nor anti-war, nor does it take great pains to preach political rhetoric.  This is a war film of tone and feeling, mostly from the marine (or “jarhead”) prospective.  These are the men that waited, and waited…and waited to go to the front lines of the Gulf only to later find out, to their chagrin, that there was no front line to be fought on.  Why?  Well, because of the modern paradigm shift in how war was fought by the US in the early 90’s.  The military might of the air force was so vast and strong that it easily decimated the front line and consequently made the jarheads obsolete.  Basically, there was no real threat from the Iraqi army for the frontline grunts to battle, being so wiped out by the precision of the F16’s.  The jarheads were trained and went through boot camp hell to become killing machines, when and where applicable.  Unfortunately, when that opportunity is promised and then taken away, it’s as close to a spiritual castration that they will ever feel.  Territory that took three months to occupy in World War I and three weeks in Vietnam now took 10 minutes in the Gulf.  To the jarheads, this Gulf War could have easily approximated a “phantom war” in retrospect.

Mendes wisely sets the story in 1989, a year before Kuwait plastered the nightly CNN broadcasts.  This serves one purpose – to only heighten the anticipatory dread and anxiety the soldiers wound later feel.  At Camp Pendleton we meet young Anthony Swofford (in a mesmerizing and commanding performance by Jake Gyllenhaal) as he undergoes the obligatorical basic training that is harsh and cruel.  He soon meets and becomes close friends with his spotter in sniper class, Troy (the always solemnly intense Peter Sarsgaard).  We also meet their commander, Siek (Jamie Foxx) who later guides them into the Gulf in late 1990 where they do just about everything possible but see combat. 

Everything they do is characterized by a mind-numbing monotony to battle not the enemy, but boredom.  They sleep, eat, hydrate, sleep, eat, hydrate, write letters, read letters, dig trenches, hydrate, watch old war films, hydrate, and - as one soldier frankly informs -  masturbate an awful lot.  All of this leads to one gut-wrenching reality – the more time away from getting to kill, the more they want to kill.  This, oddly, gives way to arguably more ambivalence, anger, annoyance, and stress without firing their weapons one single time.  It probably does not help that they do nothing for months in the 120-degree desert heat.

Yes, the soldiers do some fieldwork, but mostly that is patrol duty where they wander around aimlessly in fantastic shots of hauntingly surreal cinematography.  Mendes obviously studied LAWRENCE OF ARABIA with these scenes in mind, where the desert landscapes become a character in on itself.  The only tension comes when they come up to eight Arabs with five camels.  They sense a trap, but it turns up to be nothing of significance.  Later, in one of the tensest scenes in any film this year, the most erratic action that the soldiers get occurs when Anthony and Troy are given (finally) a sniper assignment to take out some Iraqi higher-ups.  They can literally taste their prey.  When one’s finger is poised on the trigger and ready to finally fire, a superior comes in and tells them to cease fire so the air fleet can come in and finish the job more proficiency.  Troy then goes bonkers in a fiery rage. 

The advanced aircraft symbolizes and reinforces their sense of worthlessness and, damn it, they went through hell in basic training and waited around for months and are now stripped from the satisfying opportunity to kill one man.  I mean, they have trained to the point of exhaustion, hydrated to the point of vomiting daily, walked miles in the desert with gas masks and heavy gear, have endured oil being rained down on them as a result of the oil fields being set on fire…and…for the love of God and country…have sat around and done nothing for months.  I have never wanted a character to kill another faceless victim as much as I did in this tense moment.

Sam Mendes, with JARHEAD, has truly emerged as one of the elite of the new breed of contemporary American filmmakers.  His freshmen effort, 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY, was a great suburban satire and an Oscar winner for Best Picture.  His follow-up, ROAD TO PERDITION, was a flawed but involving period drama that had an incredibly level of verisimilitude for its time with the use of both practical and visual effects artistry.  Again, in JARHEAD, Mendes shows what a master he is at fostering a tone and hyperrealism in his individual scenes.  He creates such an intimate war picture and gets the specifics down pat with such a focused level of detail that forges one of the more atmospheric of any recent war film.  The Kuwaiti desert is alive in this film and his use of gritty and sun drenched cinematography is calculating in its visceral effect.  He also makes flawless use of the wizards of Industrial Light and Magic to create convincing scenes involving the oilfield fires of the desert.  Mendes, maybe more competently than ever, also knows intuitively when and where to punctuate his film with silence, which only heightens the stress of the soldiers and the audiences’ own growing unease.

The performances in the film are also universally Oscar caliber.  Gyllenhaal, an actor I have admired in films like his unforgettable turn in DONNIE DARKO, makes a career high turn here as Swofford.  He knows precisely how to effectively dial in his performance for that right level of broad and dark humor and unsettling, manic force (one scene in particular, which involves him trying to seek retribution over another fellow soldier, epitomizes his ferocity as an actor).  Sarsgaard, as always, creates a character that is nuanced with his trademark, sleepy eyed droll.  Jamie Foxx, in more of a supporting performance, creates a layered staff sergeant figure that believes in the righteousness of his job when all others fail to see it.

JARHEAD’S approach and style will clearly polarize many viewers.  Some will come out of it with feelings that the film is egregiously hollow and ultimately pointless.   Those people who criticize the film on these levels, ironically, fault the film for it’s very strengths.  This is a film that studies the psychology of the ineffectiveness, ambiguity, and tediousness of waiting to fight in war.  JARHEAD is a personal and unconventional war epic in the sense that it wants us to feel the lead up to combat from the grunt’s point of view by sparing us of none of the agonizing details of feeling useless and valueless.  We have far too often seen war films that have attempted to one up each another by portraying the actual horrors of the war effort.  The genius of JARHEAD is that it sets its sights not on the gun battles and fighting, but on all of the turmoil that occurs in the soldiers' heads when they can’t be killing machines.  This is truly one of 2005’s best films.

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