Directed by: Sam Mendes
Screenplay by: William Broyles, Jr.
Based on the memoir by Anthony Swofford
I read the book “Jarhead” by Anthony Swofford over the course of a week while serving during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. I sat in a hot-as-hell guard tower reading Swofford’s words and felt right at home. Literally.
The strength of Swofford’s memoir is that it not only tells the soldier’s story, it personifies it. I laughed out loud, marveled at the parallels of marine life to army life, and ultimately the lives of infantryman at war, the anticipation, the boredom, the bureaucracy, the bullshit, and the brotherhood. Bonds are formed that can never be broken and experiences are played out in ways one will never forget.
War is hell. War is…boring. When people ask me about my experiences in war, which isn’t often since I’m still in the army, they often ask with apprehension, as if it has scarred me so deeply that I can’t talk about it. The truth is, there is so much to tell, yet so much is pure drivel.
And that is the experience of “Jarhead” the motion picture. Swofford’s words are brought to life, but never so vividly as he recounts them in his book. We watch him transform from a boot camp brat to a full-fledged sniper in the STA platoon.
The film, as the book, transports the viewer into the world of the military. The “real” military. The yelling, swearing, insults, fighting, camaraderie, the pressure, the stress, and the expectations of the modern fighting man are all tackled here with a fierce truth.
I found myself laughing aloud when everyone else was silent, a few snickers from around the theater from those who have lived this life. I doubt “Jarhead” will improve recruitments, but at the same time it just might. No matter how much a left-minded slant on things would sway a person from joining the military, there is no question as to the professionalism and the drive and the gusto that makes a soldier a soldier. Most people will never know what that is.
Of course, you could argue that against “Black Hawk Down.” The army witnessed a mad rush of bloodthirsty Americans hungry for the Ranger and Delta Force lifestyle after that film was churned out. Even I was susceptible to that one, again after reading the novel. A friend of mine who is currently serving in Iraq came up with the perfect name for the idealistic fire that is born from watching that movie: Black Hawk Down’s Syndrome.
“Jarhead” shows the differences of each marine, their personalities, ambitions, and their drive. Some of them love the job, some of them hate it. Most of them can’t wait to get out. However, earned in blood, sweat, and tears, each soldier (or marine, in this case) is born of something more than they would have ever experienced otherwise.
The film tackles the advanced war-fighting technique that is still used today and how that has almost “oppressed” the modern infantryman. However, with the insurgency in Iraq and the rise of terrorism, there are plenty of foot soldiers applying their trade even as I write these words.
What I like about “Jarhead” is that it doesn’t preach anything above what the average soldier or marine would. The reputation of many infantry soldiers is that they are non-thinking barbarians, chomping at the bit to kill. These are very common misconceptions. The truth is, the infantry soldier carries the same questions, the same doubts, as every American, but it is not up to them to make the choice.
They already made the choice. America decides. The soldier acts. Plain and simple. “Jarhead” tells this perfectly. They are all itching for action, a chance to get in the game after so many practices. And what person wouldn’t want to?
After every doubt, every argument, the men silence one another. None of it matters. “Fuck politics,” says Skarsgaard at one point, playing the marine who wants to stay in but can’t because of a police record he lied about. And he’s right. Politics do not matter to the soldier. The soldier’s job is to fight, to complete the mission. If a soldier sat and questioned things all day long, there wouldn’t even be an America to fight for.
The marines in “Jarhead” suffer from the heartbreak of cheating wives, the deliriousness of boredom, suicidal thoughts, and the lack of information, which, as anyone serving in the military knows, is all too common.
In the end, the biggest push to promote a message from “Jarhead” is that we (meaning America, the military) are still in the desert. Obviously true, but we aren’t in the same desert. It’s wholly different. At one point a marine yells out at an end-of-the-war bonfire “We never have to come back here again!” I laughed out loud on that one. Oh, the irony.
The film is beautifully shot and directed. Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) has a penchant for telling very emotional and deep films. He won’t ever direct an Eddie Murphy family comedy to be sure. His vision is strong here and applies many cinematic devices to bring it to us. Although I don’t think it’s his best work, it does get me excited to see what he’ll do next.
The performances were all top notch and I must admit to being thoroughly impressed with Jake Gyllenhaal as Swofford. After watching Gyllenhaal parade around during election time, rallying for Kerry, I felt he was on the left-wing liberal slant and would use “Jarhead” as his venue for promoting that.
Thankfully, I was wrong, and even though subtle messages are inserted throughout, none of them go beyond what the typical soldier may think. Gyllenhaal’s anger and passion throughout the film is absolutely terrific. Thanks to this film, Gyllenhaal has elevated himself out of the “aw, shucks” or “weird kid” roles he has thus far inhabited. Gyllenhaal easily works in an Oscar mention if not a win here.
Jamie Foxx is perfect as the staff sergeant that leads the STA platoon. He’s fun, he’s funny, he’s unapologetic. Again, not an Oscar caliber performance, but a great role nonetheless.
Peter Sarsgaard is simply awesome in this. He has done so many great films of late and it’s about time he started getting the recognition. “Jarhead” certainly will go down on his resume as a defining role. He deserves every kudo he gets for this.
In the end, “Jarhead” is fun, it’s involving, it’s interesting, it’s a look into the reality of war, instead of the beefed up “Full Metal Jacket” version, which although exists, it’s not as prevalent as the life and times of the marines in “Jarhead.”
The film reminded me of what I have to look forward to again. And although it’s a mess and it entails many things that I’d like to not have to relive it also reminds me that I am a part of something bigger, something more defining, no matter anyone’s beliefs. And I’m okay with that.
MOVIE GRADE: A-