Saturday, March 18, 2006

Jarhead / ***½ (R)

Tony Swofford: Jake Gyllenhaal
Troy: Peter Sarsgaard
Staff Sgt. Sykes: Jamie Foxx
Kruger: Lucas Black
Lt. Col. Kazinski: Chris Cooper
Maj. Lincoln: Dennis Haysbert

Universal presents a film directed by Sam Mendes. Written by William Broyles, Jr. Based on the novel by Anthony Swofford. Running time 122 min. Rated R (for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content).

“Jarhead,” the film based on the memoir of service in a U.S. Marines sniper division during the Gulf War by Anthony Swofford, had an unusual effect on me. Watching it, I took it in as I do just about any movie. With a hero who is reluctant to be in the position he finds himself, Tony Swofford’s story engaged me, but didn’t strike me as something I had never seen before. There were ups and downs for the characters and a slow build to a climax of all their efforts. It was only at the end of the movie did I realize that climax would never come. This previous sentence sums up Swofford’s experience in the Marine Corps during that war.

There is a great ritual witnessed here in this film, that I am sure is the norm in the U.S. military. As part of the soldiers’ R & R, they watch war movies. There is a scene where the company has gathered to watch a big screen presentation of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” The scene we witness the soldiers watching is the one where Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore is leading his helicopter cavalry charge on a costal village with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” pumped through loud speakers for the assault. The soldiers are all screaming and cheering at the screen, letting out woops and hollers even when women and children are being blown to smithereens on the screen. These men are pumped for war. This is what they’ve been trained for and it has been glorified in their minds. This early scene of the Coppola film is the only we see the soldiers’ reaction to, but I couldn’t help wondering what their responses were to the rest of that movie’s journey into the darkness of men’s souls.

The soldiers in this film are in for a big disappointment with the Gulf War, which was fought mostly with missiles sent into the city of Baghdad hundreds of miles away from where these foot soldiers were encamped. For Swofford the moot nature of his presence in Iraq is made more pointless by the fact that he realizes long before the war that he made the wrong decision by joining up.

Jake Gyllenhaal (“Donnie Darko”) has made a career of playing characters that are just a little skewed off center. His Swofford isn’t typical because he is not the gung ho Marine that the U.S. military likes to spew out as fighting machines with flesh, but he wishes he were. The rare educated foot soldier, Swofford strikes up a friendship with Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, “Garden State”), a man not as privileged as Tony, who only has The Corps to live for. Troy lets Tony in on a joke the other soldiers pulled on him when he first reported to barracks. This joke is only the first of Tony’s troubles in basic training.

Tony’s primary source of adversity comes in the form of Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx, “Ray”), a Corps man to the bone who seems to notice both the potential in Tony and the failing desire. While Sykes is the typical Hollywood drill instructor, picking on the hero and driving his men harder than it seems humans should be, there is a hint that he shares some of their frustrations during the endless waiting for the war to begin. It is only a hint that is never commented on because Foxx never lets his military veneer down for a second. Finally, the war begins and Sykes gives Swofford a speech that could have come from Kilgore himself if he had existed in any of “Apocalypse Now”’s quieter moments. “I love this job. I thank God for every f***ing day he gives me in the Corps. Hooah!”

Director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) does a magical job balancing the standard operating procedures of military dramas with the unusually long staging period taken by the U.S. forces during the Golf War. He and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. (“Cast Away”) even include an intense scene of conflict as the climax of the film, but it is not between our heroes and enemy soldiers; rather they are finally getting a chance to do their job when they are suddenly interrupted by other U.S. soldiers trying to prevent them from doing so.

In the end “Jarhead” is a war film with no war. No shooting or up-close death anyway. “Four days, four hours, one minute. That was my war.” Swofford tells us, “I never shot my rifle.” These soldiers never did what they had prepped for, and some would say neither did the U.S. military. That was the Gulf War. As I watched “Jarhead” it was a military drama, afterwards it was an odd little comedy. But not funny, “Ha, ha.” Perhaps that is what war has become.

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