Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"Every war is different; every war is the same."

These words, coming near the end of Sam Mendes' Jarhead, summarise the film's direct engagement with the anxiety of influence. In trying to pin down the highly personal experiences of a Marine Corps sniper during the first Gulf War, the film performs a delicate two-step, expressly placing Swoff's "adventures" in a long tradition of wars and war films, with the Vietnam conflict in particular casting a long shadow over proceedings, while, at the same time, bringing forward all manner of differences and contrasts. The result is something that seems strangely familiar and yet quite unlike anything else, not least because so little actual combat is depicted.

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It is based on the memoirs of Anthony "Swoff" Swofford, a third generation enlistee, who was a Vietnam baby, conceived during his father's leave. The cult novel of 2003 has been adapted by screenwriter William Broyles Jr, himself a Vietnam vet. Hardly your typical Marine (or "jarhead"), Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives for basic training with a copy of Albert Camus' The Stranger in his hand, and, like that book's protagonist, he appears aloof and angst-ridden.

This makes Swoff an unusually disaffected and disengaged observer of war, as remote from its events as he is physically distant from his sniping targets. In the end, however, he cannot even live up to the standards of Camus' existentialist antihero, for Swoff never gets to kill his Arab.

As the film opens, Swoff undergoes the brutalities of boot camp, before finding his niche in the special sniper unit of Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx). Including a "joker" private, an eroticised oath to the rifle and a fatal shot fired during training, the sequence wears its debt to Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) on its as yet undecorated sleeve; and it is while the unit is howling and hollering along to a screening of the dawn raid sequence from Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) that they are called up to be in the vanguard of Operation Desert Shield. The fact that Walter Murch, the editor of Jarhead, earned his first Academy Award for work on Apocalypse Now only adds to the impression that Swoff and his comrades are headed for generic territories that have already been well established.

It is when they reach the desert that the rules of engagement suddenly change, at least insofar as the conventions of the war film are concerned. There, for months on end, these aggressive, adrenaline-pumped killers find themselves bored and paranoid, with nothing but sand and other, equally pent-up men for company. As time passes, waiting for orders becomes like waiting for Godot, an absurdist tragicomedy of frustration, madness and masculinity gone awry. Amidst the games of football in full protective combat gear, the gratuitous baiting of locals and the endless sexual fantasising and jealousy, it becomes clear that each soldier is at war only with himself and his fellows - a point brought home when the real conflict begins and the only fire that Swoff and his company encounter (apart from the burning oilfields, of course) is of the "friendly" variety.

When, during a short period of leave, the men sit down to watch a video of The Deer Hunter (1978), received in the mail, only to discover that some pornographic material has been recorded over it and that the woman shown in the act is the wife of one of the soldiers, out to get payback for her husband's own infidelity, there is no longer any question that Jarhead has severed its ties with tradition and is taking the war film into terra incognita.

Being fought, for the most part, remotely from the air, the first Gulf War really was a new kind of battleground, best known (at least to non-participants) from the green-tinged CNN coverage of "surgical" strikes that resembled little more than depersonalised video games. Jarhead offers a decidedly different perspective, viewed from the ground up by a platoon of men always several steps behind the main events and painfully aware of their own redundancy. It is a mark of Mendes' talent at handling difficult and complex materials that he is able to transform these men's disappointment and impatience into a broader brand of existential angst and to turn their frustrated desire to kill complete strangers into a condition with which viewers can sympathise.

"Fuck politics! We're here. The rest is all fucking bullshit!"

So says Swoff's sniping "spotter" and friend Allen Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), although, of course, few human activities are more political than war and it would be a mistake to believe that Jarhead is in any way apolitical. The original arming of Saddam Hussein by the West, the centrality of oil as a motivation for war, the forced use of untested drug cocktails by the soldiers, the dehumanising and dictatorial nature of the military chain of command, atrocities committed by the American military and the indiscriminate slaughter of Iraqi civilians, all find their way into the film's texture, while its final, double-edged line ("We are all still in the desert") points to a more universal conflict in the heart of man that will never end and which we now know has evolved more specifically into the ongoing second Gulf War, with no clear denouement in sight.

It is to the film's great credit that its politics remain subtle, never reducible to the simplistic style of point scoring, favoured by either neo-con shockjocks on the right, or the likes of Michael Moore on the left. Jarhead depicts war as it is experienced by soldiers whose job requirements render such narrow political concerns little more than "bullshit". Once they have signed up, it no longer matters what they think as individuals and any residual rebellion in their ranks is readily absorbed into carefully contained rituals of verbal, physical and psychological abuse. Which is, of course, highly political...

With Jarhead and Brokeback Mountain already under his belt, it would seem that this is destined to be the year of Gyllenhaal, but he is well supported by the ever-brilliant Sarsgaard and Foxx, as well as Chris Cooper, playing the crudely charismatic Lieutenant Colonel Kazinski. Together they show a conflict where the US grunts on the ground are as dazed and confused as the enemy is shocked and awed.

It may be a new variety of war, but it is still the same old horror.

Reviewed on: 13 Jan 2006
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Waiting for war, with Albert Camus, in Operation Desert Shield.
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Chris ****

Director: Sam Mendes

Writer: William Broyles Jr, based on the book by Anthony Swofford

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, Chris Cooper, Jamie Foxx, Brian Geraghty, Jacob Vargas, Laz Alonso, Evan Jones, Dennis Haysbert, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper

Year: 2005

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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