By Alan Scherstuhl
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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 for war movies, specifically Vietnam films -- Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket, which they watched over and over and drooled over the way one gawks at a centerfold. Soldiers, Swofford writes, are aroused by war movies, "because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. 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 considered, more or less, 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; certainly it is there, 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 shithole ever again!" One could hear the preview audience groan at the line, from both sides of the aisles. Yet Jarhead also insists 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!" to which a cynical comrade, played by Lucas Black, wonders, "For what?" Theirs becomes a brief argument over "fat cats" protecting their oil interests, and for a moment, the script reads as if it were penned on protestors' placards. But then, as if to clear away the stale smoke, Troy responds as any soldier must when handed a rifle and his marching orders: "Fuck politics."
Ultimately, Jarhead is about nothing more than 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 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 MacDonald) who wants to know if Swofford's Vietnam vet daddy had "the balls to die there." His is the ritual humiliation of the private: name-calling, beatings (at the hands of the D.I. and even his own platoon), and the occasional branding with makeshift tools. And Swofford treats it all with the knowing distance of the guy who thinks himself superior to his superiors, as when he tells the D.I. the only reason he's in the Marines is because "I got lost on the way to college, sir." Clearly, this is a guy who's seen Full Metal Jacket too much and believes he's like Matthew Modine -- Private Joker, able to laugh off the abuse he's just begging for.
But he has good reason to think he's in that movie: Jarhead contains familiar echoes from that film, and it, too, is divided in half -- the training half and the fighting half. There are whole scenes and moments cribbed from 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. And the score, a pastiche of Thomas Newman's overwrought orchestrations and popped-up Middle Eastern music, echoes the sounds of David O. Russell's Three Kings; there's even a post-war celebration set to the siren-screams of Public Enemy.
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 destroyed from the inside out.
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