Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Movie review: Jarhead ***


Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives in Iraq.


Every war is different.

Every war is the same.

That's the motto of Jarhead.

It comes with a caveat, repeated by Peter Sarsgaard a few times: "Welcome to the suck."

That's also on the poster. He's talking about the general absurdity of military life, the very Catch-22-ness and the ingloriousness of the actual situation.

It also begs the question:

Have we reached the point where the only Americans allowed to say something about the military and war itself, without fear of a backlash, are those who served in a war themselves?

Jarhead the movie is visually extraordinary and well acted but a more hesitant portrait of the military than Jarhead the book. That book, a lacerating and at times profound 2003 memoir by Anthony Swofford, recounted his time as a 20-year-old Marine, shipped to the Middle East and forced to wait and kill time while F-

14 jets and columns of tanks fought the first Gulf War and liberated Kuwait. Swofford's poetic prose came at that war, and at his time as a soldier (he was third-generation military), at an angle: With a prickly and honest ambivalence, he found he could not deny that going to war clarified his way of looking at the world but couldn't clarify his problems with the war itself.

There's a terrific bit in the book (though not the picture) when "Swoff" is on leave and goes mountain climbing and runs into German tourists who reflexively curse the Gulf War but he doesn't say anything for fear if he does he will appear mindlessly supportive when, in fact, his viewpoint is pretty complex.

"Like most good and great marines," Swofford writes, "I hated the Corps." Because, of all the things he wanted to be, he goes on - sexy and smart and famous - he was just a soldier.

There's not a moment in Sam Mendes' Jarhead that comes as close to that level of confiding and intimacy; there's something of an odd failure of nerve of anyone in the movie, or behind it, to take a viewpoint at all. We're left wondering who exactly Swoff (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is and what he thinks and why, and it's not enough to say the story isn't about the whys but the soldiers and a soldier's view of war.

A soldier has his reasons, too.

The result is a picture unsure of what its dark beauty and moments of perverse truth add up to. The closest we get to an opinion is Sarsgaard's character saying (though in a more colorful way) that politics is a bunch of hooey, and so is everything but what is in front or beside you on the field of combat. And though that is not especially new, what is here, at times, is rarely so timid.

Esthetically, anyway.

Mendes - who shot a mess of disparate scenes into a consistent bitter tone and memorable whole (and directing Oscar) for American Beauty - is a provocative visualizer, and a pro at keeping a movie clipping along even when nothing particularly mind-blowing is happening: The desert is endless, kicking up clouds of dust from which limousines appear like apparitions; when the men land in Saudi Arabia, it's on a TWA flight, with TWA flight attendants who repeat with affectless tones, "Good-bye. Good-bye now. Good-bye. Good-bye now."

Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins paint a surreal, hallucinatory landscape in pale yellows and dark reds, packed with strange, discordant details: When the Iraqi military sets fire to the oil wells, the long black plumes of smoke trail off the red flames against eerie skies, which let loose a rain of scorching oils.

Images like that are especially vital because this material would pose a problem for any filmmaker, regardless of talent: How do you make a compelling picture from a story about soldiers sitting and waiting to head into a war that will pass them right by?

Mendes' answers (to be fair, most are pulled from the book) can be intriguing. But mainly he clearly wants to remind us that Jarhead is in a long line of movies about young men going to war and finding out what they are made of. The picture opens and closes with Bobby McFerrin's cloying, nerve-rattling hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy." In the first scenes, it plays as Swoff, in a marvelous montage, enters his first day of boot camp, meets his invective-spewing drill instructor, then later his Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx); the song plays right up until the moment when it washes over him that this is the military. It also reminds us of the early scenes in Full Metal Jacket, so harsh and head-banging they elevate profanity to a kind of art.

Don't worry? Be happy?

Sir, yes, sir!

In the closing scenes, which riff on David O. Russell's Three Kings, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" gets name-checked in the Public Enemy classic "Fight the Power," and by that point the war is over, and these guys never got to fight anyone but themselves - often out of the sheer tedium of being dug into a desert with no orders to fulfill. This is the big problem with films about the first Gulf War, the few there have been: with a half-million troops in the desert not fighting, these movies regard the conflict itself as all prologue and the meat as the aftermath. Jarhead is different. It ends where Three Kings begins.

So, soldiers play with scorpions, throw footballs, sit through insulting TV interviews, contemplate suicide, think about women they left back home (and who they're sleeping with). Mendes gives their frustration a painterly elegance even if he never gets into their heads. Especially when they're doing what they do more often than fight - watch war movies about people who are fighting. The title, "Jarhead," refers not just to the soldier's haircut but his head, ready to fill with knowledge and experience.

So they watch Deer Hunter.

They sit through Apocalypse Now and shout along with the famous beach landing sequence. And they don't watch them as the anti-war movies they are but as incitement and weird promises.

Apocalypse now, they ask.

Wait, comes the response.

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