Jarhead, a military war film that begins like so many other military films, with a stone faced drill instructor screaming insults at a young recruit, never quite makes the leap to being a great movie. Still, it’s an interesting, entertaining, testosterone fueled look at being a marine in the early 1990s and the Gulf War that many might find enjoyable.
Jarhead was a memoir a few years ago by Anthony Swofford about his family connection to the Marines, his boot camp experiences and the dragging on forever experience he had during the Gulf War that soured his opinion of what it was to fight in a war. As a kid growing up, all he wished for was to fight in a war like his grandfather in World War Two and his father in Vietnam. When he was finally in a war, his reaction is one that completely spins him around and changes his opinion.
A beefed up Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swofford as we see him from boot camp, in sniper training and then as he and his unit ship out to the desert to sit and wait to attack Iraq. The troops wait and wait and wait and boredom causes all kinds of festering tension between the men, their relationship with women back home in the states and their opinion of the Marines. Not everyone is feeling so Semper Fi when they’ve sat out in the sun for 3 months tasting sand every single day.
An interesting aspect of the book that the film attempts to explore is the entire male culture of the military in general and the Marines specifically. These men are so pumped up and full of testosterone and have been force fed a steady diet of what it means to be a soldier and to fight for America that it’s almost impossible to satisfy their lust for combat.
Soldiers now are different than any soldier that has ever fought for the United States. First, technology has rendered combat into warfare of distances, of air strikes without close fighting. Marines are constantly sniping about this in the film. They want to “get some” and are angry the jets fly over to bomb the Iraqis before they get the chance to fire their weapons toward an enemy.
The second change for modern soldiers the book and film tries to address is that these young men have been so completely washed in the culture of war through films, video games, books and historic lore that it is virtually impossible for them to stack up against what has come before them. As a Marine, how in the world can you compete with what happened in WW2 when all you are doing is sitting in the desert week after week?
One of the best scenes in the film plays into this notion as the Marines assemble to watch Apocalypse Now as they wait to be shipped of to the Middle East. The Marines, who have obviously watched this film (and others like it) over and over, shout out lines and grin at each other like kids with the hope this will soon be them kicking tail and taking names. These soldiers have built up such expectations about what war is, because of the “culture” of war, it’s impossible for them to live up to the ideals of Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter.
The book explores these ideas in more depth than the film and that’s why I felt the film was missing something as I watched it. I expected director Sam Mendes to put more teeth into the satire aspects of the story. Mendes does put in subtle reminders from time to time that there is another war going on in the desert at the moment and the first Gulf War did little to remedy the restlessness of the region.
The photography is really washed out with sun-drenched vistas of vast desert and it fit the film’s location perfectly. The supporting cast was quite good with Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black and Chris Cooper all giving solid help for Gyllenhaal in the lead.
Jarhead is worth seeing as it’s got some funny dark comedy moments and has some interesting issues regarding the changing culture of war in the testosterone fueled world of the Marines, but it seemed to lack the depth of the book. But you know, the always present complaint of someone who has read the book first lives here—the movie is never as good as the book.