Director: Sam Mendes
With: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard
Runtime: 123 min
“Every war is different, every war is the same.” These words, spoken by central character Anthony ‘Swoff’ Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal’s brilliant, multifaceted performance), form the core of Sam Mendes’ slightly unconventional war film. Based on the real-life memoirs of ex-marine Swofford’s experiences during the second Gulf War in the late 1980s, the title refers to the character of the US Marine Corps. Jarhead is a universal comment on the mundane futility of war.
British-born Mendes is able to achieve an objectivity that is absent from the romantic patriotism of Platoon and the brutal violence of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Though Jarhead has scenes of the aftermath of violence, with bombed out cars and the like, the most violent feature of the film is arguably verbal. After all the hype, however, nothing much happens. Far from the typical military jargon back at the base (“Without my rifle I am nothing!”), Swofford and his partner Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) ironically never get to fire their rifles in combat. They never come faceto-face with the enemy, a factor that imbues their purpose with a sense of false hope.
Mendes juxtaposes the morale-boosting playfulness of the Marines with expansive shots of barren desert, disconcertingly hazy in the harsh sunlight. One problem with this film is Gyllenhaal’s character. ‘Swoff’ is not particularly likeable, due to a lack of emotional depth, yet we are forced to accept his flaws because they are human. Indeed, here the Marines are typically sex-crazed, with obscure alpha-male membership rituals and a penchant for swearing. In the second half of the film, Mendes interestingly focuses on the soldiers’ desire for normality, as, in a horrible scene, one feverishly holds on to the charred corpse of an Iraqi girl, showing it to his comrades with poignant desperation. The timing of Jarhead’’s release, amidst America’s current war with Iraq, was undoubtedly intentional.
Indeed, the film emulates Mendes’ most famous film, American Beauty, as an examination of the destruction of the American dream. Here it relates to the young American soldier’s ability to ‘serve my country’, which is repeated throughout as a justification for war. Yet the emotional breakdown of Sarsgaard’s character, when his commander tells him he cannot fire his rifle, is one of the most touching examples of the warped sensibility a soldier is forced to embrace at the brink of combat. It is a virtual apocalypse of permanent darkness, a web of oil. Ultimately, Jarhead gets straight to the point.
Reviewed by Steph Crewes