Rating: 8 / 10
Reviewer: A to the L
Sam Mendes’ ‘war movie’ is a strange beast. Mainly because despite being centered around the events leading up to and into Gulf War 1 and the Operation Desert Storm exercise that liberated Kuwait, there is very little actual ‘war’ footage. Instead, the majority of the film follows the lives of Anthony Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and his band of Marine Corps compatriots as they move from training camp rookies, to still-raw soldiers eager for their first taste of battle, to disillusioned ‘vets’ who actually didn’t even get to fight.
Instead, the underlying message of “Jarhead” is not what war does to soldiers (which as we know can be brutally destructive and damaging both physically and mentally), but rather what the build up and threat / promise of war can do to rookies who arrive at training camp bewildered and anxious, and often leave ready to pull a trigger at the slightest hint of danger. As Swofford moves through the camp, he is part dragged, part encouraged through sniper training by the emotionless Staff Sargeant Siek (Jamie Foxx) and Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), a surprisingly calm voice amidst the other exhuberant younguns, who eventually becomes Swofford’s sniping partner.
The camp scenes pay lip service to several other classic war movies – the training, the bullying superiors, and the cowering rookies are straight from “Full Metal Jacket”, and as these recruits struggle to establish their own identity, scenes from “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” get cheers, but ultimately leave them disillusioned. They’ve been promised travel… adventures… war… throughout their training, and are eager to experience it, but with no Vietnam waiting for them, they find that Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” famous scene of the helicopters destroying a Vietnamese village to the eerie sounds of ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ barely sate the bloodlust, leaving one rookie to voice the thoughts of the rest of the group, when he asks “Are we ever going to get to kill someone?”
Emotions and adrenaline are raised as Iraq invade Kuwait, and the marines are shipped to the Middle East, ready to move into action if they are called to do so. As they spend day after day after day after day after day acclimatising, practicing putting on gas masks, taking them off again, hydrating, masturbating, and fighting the tides of boredom washing over them, it becomes clear that this isn’t the great army experience they were sold at training camp. Neither is it likely to become one either – as presidents play politics, and aeroplanes whistle overhead efficiently blowing up hundreds of enemies before the foot soldiers are ever likely to get a chance to make kills themselves, Swofford and his compatriots struggle to maintain their sanity, fighting desperately to balance worries about home lives left far behind with the overpowering urge to kill something… anything.
And this is really the entire movie – the waiting that this group have inflicted upon them, and the stir-crazy psychological damage it does to them as they count down the seconds before they can put their killing skills into practice. Right up to the end of the movie the opportunity to fire a weapon in anger dangles just out of reach of the main characters, before ultimately eluding them, when the chance of a ‘kill’ is snatched away from Swofford and Troy by a ‘selfish’ senior officer (played by Dennis Haysbert).
And this is the beauty of the movie – Mendes has succeeded in extracting a gritty, real movie from a ‘nothing’ situation using some beautiful photography, some superb acting performances and the most ironic uses of music you’re likely to see in a war movie (Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ as our soldiers’ ready-to-kill theme tune, Naughty By Nature’s ‘OPP’ at their Christmas celebration as they get drunk to try to forget their wives’ and girlfriends’ real and imagined infidelities at home, and Public Enemy’s ‘Fight The Power’ to celebrate the end of a war where the ‘Power’ actually won, and managed to protect the vast oil reserves that keep it IN power.)
This is really a movie that needs to be seen, and Universal’s 2 Disc DVD set is as good a place as any to see it. Disc 1 provides the movie, fully Dolby-ed up, with all the subtitles you’ll ever need, and a couple of superb audio commentaries nestling amidst some of the ‘fantasy’ scenes, while Disc 2 throws documentary bonus material into the mix – Jarhead diaries, Background and a real-life After The Corps piece which follows REAL marines as they come out of Iraq. A movie worthy of a place in your collection.