Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Arts & Culture


While there are a variety of films about the Vietnam War and World War II, Hollywood has been relatively silent about Desert Storm. But Universal is banking that U.S. audiences are ready for a film about the senior Bushs war in Iraq. The studio is rolling out Jarhead (opening November 4 throughout San Diego) as one of its award hopefuls for this year.

Jarhead is based on the real life experiences of Anthony Swofford, a Marine who wrote a book about being sent overseas for Desert Storm. Swofford (played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal) begins the film with a voiceover narration with the screen still in black. He tells us a story of a man and his rifle, and the inability of the man to forget his connection to his weapon. The film then cuts to a drill sergeant screaming into the camera and at a bunch of new Marine recruits. By choosing to begin his film in this manner, director Sam Mendes immediately calls to mind Stanley Kubricks opening to Full Metal Jacket and Lee Ermeys ferocious and terrifying performance that seems to have become the standard by which we judge all other Marine sergeants. But by invoking one of cinemas masters, Mendes sets the bar very high and builds audience expectations.

Swofford takes us through the grind of boot camp. When grilled by the drill sergeant about what hes doing in the Marines, Swofford answers I got lost on my way to college. So while Swofford may be a volunteer, hes not exactly an eager one. He explains some of the Marine lingo including the fact that jarhead is slang for Marine. But as he contemplates the words meaning and original and notes that it also implies an empty vessel. Swofford moves through boot camp, and were introduced to others in his unit (including Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, and Brian Geraghty), and to Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx). Sykes asks if the recruits remember being taught about the Ten Commandments and Thou shalt not kill? Well, he says, fk that st. Swofford and the others in his unit are trained as snipers. But as they complete their training theres a growing sense of frustration that they now have a skill and no way to put it to use.


Then comes word that they will be sent to the Middle East. They arrive in the desert and the film feels like its been bleached white as the sun beats down on the vast sandy flatness. But theres an emotional deflation that occurs as the Marines realize that their job is just to protect the oil fields. The longer they stay, the more they fear that they will have come this far and not be given the chance to fight, to put their training to the test.

Jarhead delivers a mixed bag. It seems to cull elements from other moviesin addition to Full Metal Jacket there are echoes of Platoon and the documentary Gunner Palace, and theres an actual screening of Apocalypse Now that takes place on the Marine base. But the film never develops a personality of its own. At one point, Swofford hears someone playing The Doors and comments that thats Vietnam War music, cant we get our own? And that pretty much sums up the films shortcomings; its drawing on elements from Vietnam War films but failing to find a voice to describe the particular conditions of Desert Storm. Even the scenaristWilliam Broyles, Jr.for the film is a Vietnam vet. Jarhead doesnt seem to know what it wants to say about war or about being a Marine. Its not an anti-war film nor is it a patriotic, gung ho war picture. Those on the left will probably think it doesnt come out strongly enough against war while those on the right will probably see it as too critical. But the film holds its middle ground only by default, not because thats part of its design. Ultimately, the only appropriate term I can think of for it is to call it a non-war filmit doesnt takes political sides and it shows a war in which the soldiers never actually engage in combat.

Now its not necessary for a film set during a war to take a political stance on that war. In some ways its refreshing that Jarhead often leaves the politics out because that seems to reflect the soldiers who are being depicted. Only one character brings up issues of free speech and individual rights, no one else in the film exhibits any political leanings of any kind. But the problem is that in refusing to take sides the film exists in a kind of limbo that lacks perspective. And that might have been fine if it filled the time with enough detail and freshness to feel like an intimate, personal account. We dont get to know any of the characters well enough to gain insight into them and their changing emotions. Plus, most of the details that Mendes does provide feel familiar whether its the abuse of boot camp or the ennui that sets in when theres nothing to do.

A film that addressed that boredom with much more flair and inventiveness is Buffalo Soldiers, a film set on a U.S. army base just outside of Stuttgart, West Germany in 1989. That film opened with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: Where there is peace the warlike man attacks himself. The film showed how peace could make life on base unbearably dull, and you end up with all these highly trained soldiers with nothing to kill but timeand thats a potentially dangerous situation. Jarhead addresses similar issues but instead of being set during peacetime its set during a war in which some soldiers often had nothing to do but wait. But while Buffalo Soldiers put those conditions under the microscope and found savage satire, Jarhead has nothing much to say about the situation.

The only other major Hollywood film I can remember dealing with Desert Storm was Three Kings, a film that like Buffalo Soldiers displayed a sharp satiric sting that captured something unique about the particular absurdities of that war. But Mendes cant seem to find a personality for his film. Swofford doesnt seem happy to be in the Marines yet he ends the film with a comment about how he is forever linked to them. This sudden bonding feels artificially tacked on the end of the film. Another embarrassingly artificial moment also arrives late in the film when a painfully stereotyped Vietnam vet makes an appearance. This prompts Swofford to offer the pretentiously obvious comment that Every war is different, every war is the same.


At the screening I attended, Marines had been invited and there was even a group of injured and wounded Marines in attendance. There was something awkward about this because the film doesnt paint a flattering portrait of Marine life and the marines depicted are often unbalanced in some way. The two Marines sitting next to me ended up leaving after about a half hour. So Im not sure if marketing to a military audience is the best strategy for this film.

Mendes, who directed American Beauty, endows the film with an occasional stylistic flourish. Theres an early sequence in which Swofford explains all the things he cant or wont show us, and Mendes shows us a hint of each and then literally has a door close on the scene. The montage hints at a visual poetry that is never picked up again and which feels out of place with the rest of the film. But Mendes does get some things right. The scene where Marines are watching Apocalypse Now, and getting all fired up about war is great. It points out that an artist has no control over how his work is viewed or perceived. Francis Ford Coppola intended Apocalypse Now as an anti-war film, and he might be troubled to find that these soldiers react to his films like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Its as if the film makes them hungry for battle. They dont seem to be getting Coppolas anti-war message. They just see the thrill of combat.

Mendes receives fine performances from his cast despite a lack of depth in some of the characterizations. Gyllenhaal, who will have his sensitive side on display in the upcoming Brokeback Mountain, goes from reflective to out of control as Swofford. Although the script doesnt always make the characters mood swings believable, Gyllenhaal keeps the audience with him through all the characters erratic behavior. Jamie Foxx once again reveals his fine skills as a dramatic actor, and may in fact be better in serious drama than in comedy. While the young recruits lack stability, Foxxs career officer tends to maintain an even keel and seems content with the choices hes made.

Jarhead (rated R for language, nudity and violence) has some fine elements but Mendes fails to ignite this story with the same sense of inspired artistry that made so much of American Beauty vivid and memorable.

(Just as a local side note, the documentary Ear Open, Eyes Click by former Marine and one-time SDSU film student Canaan Brumley offers a compelling and objective portrait of Marine boot camp that goes nicely as companion viewing for Jarhead.)