One of the few Hollywood movies to ever acknowledge the Desert Storm “experience,” Sam Mendes’s Jarhead is both fastidiously grueling and perversely withholding. In his adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s memoir, Mendes has contrived a combat film almost entirely without combat.
Highly appropriate: Operation Desert Storm was not just the first war with a real-time mass audience, it proved virtually cost-free for its (non-Iraqi) spectators. Casualties were erased as the combat situation merged with its own ultra-produced tele-representation. Back then Sylvester Stallone sagely declared Desert Storm but a speed bump on the highway of history—he understood that Rambo heroics were superfluous. Indeed, Hollywood’s first account of the war, Edward Zwick’s Courage Under Fire (1996), amplified a single battlefield incident into a Rashomon narrative court case, and three years later, David O. Russell’s bold and messy Three Kings dealt with the war by riffing on its aftermath. Now Jarhead—which more or less ends where Three Kings begins—attempts to get to Desert Storm by dwelling on its prologue.
A sustained atmosphere of brutish frustration is immediately established in the marine boot camp where protag Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) receives his basic training. Swoff is both above it and beneath it; he realizes enlisting was a bad decision even before he’s stuck in a company of “retards and fuckups.” In fact, it’s worse. That hanging with the marines is more like living with a gang of baby Nazis is established by the movie’s key sequence. Watching the spectacular Wagnerian helicopter napalm scene from Apocalypse Now, which they obviously know by heart, the guys are on their feet screaming for blood—and the spell is hardly broken when the trumpet call of duty sounds.
For Jarhead, the essence of Desert Storm is the immense buildup that, over the autumn and winter of 1990, populated the desert with half a million American troops (roughly equal to Vietnam’s max). No Saigon ficky-fick for these poor devils. Waiting in the wasteland, they drill in pitiless heat, submit to inane interviews, and hone their aggression on a shared hatred of women. His big-jawed smirk accentuated by a bulked-up physique and baldie haircut, Gyllenhaal gives the impression that this misery is playing out in his head. He’s sensitive—for him it’s even worse. Gyllenhaal’s beseeching pale-eyed stare is more eloquent than his voiceover; as his smart, troubled buddy, Peter Sarsgaard brings some depth to an underwritten part; Jamie Foxx is appropriately lively as a staff sergeant with a human core beneath his tough exterior and a measure of madness lurking beneath that.
After 175 days, war arrives, and Mendes, who is as much designer as director, cuts to the beige-on-beige battlefield. Jarhead goes slo-mo and subjective as the boys get a brief taste of action—that they’re strafed by U.S. bombers only adds to the solipsism. Plus, the frustration seems eternal. When sniper Swoff finally receives a mission, minutes before the war ends, he has to radio the base for permission to even squeeze off a shot. Mainly what these guys do is bear witness—stumbling through a landscape of incinerated jeeps, charred corpses, and oil wells blazing in the beyond-Coppola apocalyptic night.
Jarhead pounds along, largely unmodulated in its Hobbesian view of men (almost) at war. A master of the monotone, Mendes prompts his performers to hit a note and sustain it. Although Jarhead is more visually accomplished and less empty than American Beauty or Road to Perdition, it still feels oppressively hermetic. The precise mise-en-scéne and elegant sense of space—not to mention the snarky attitude—pay homage to Stanley Kubrick, but Mendes lacks Kubrick’s Olympian formalism and touch for sarcastic pop. He lamely scores a gas mask exercise to T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong” and reprises the Doors to allow a jarhead complaint: “Can’t we get our own fucking music.”
As Desert Storm was the designated un-Vietnam, so Jarhead has an ambiguous relationship with the Nam movies that presumably fueled its combatants’ warrior dreams. Not only Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket but Platoon and The Deer Hunter are explicitly acknowledged. The dank Michael Cimino chest thumper, humorously presented as a literal counterpoint to the libidinal Apocalypse Now, turns out to be not warno-but pornography.
In another movie reference, Jarhead restages Three Kings‘ rap-fueled victory stomp. The latter film deserves credit for rethinking the combat film in the weird we-are-the-world terms Desert Storm established—even if it did ultimately recast the war as an altruistic adventure that didn’t go far enough. (What goes around comes around: Director Russell ran into candidate George W. Bush at a Hollywood fundraiser in the summer of 1999 and told him that he was making a movie critical of his father’s Gulf War legacy. “Then I guess I’m going to have to go finish the job, aren’t I?” the younger Bush replied.)
Jarhead is not only a far tougher slog, it’s naturally more successful in presenting itself as a referendum on the second Gulf war. The movie is oppressively heavy even when mischievously lighthearted. But no irony weighs more than Swoff’s pre-postscript closer, “We never have to come back to this shithole ever again!”