Reviewed by: Chris

War movies and anti-war movies cover such a wide range that one can be forgiven for wondering what the latest offering will be. Left wing protest? All-American hero? Action thriller? Historical? Often spanning several genres, our cinematic take on humanity's bloodiest of pastimes even throws up comedies and romances.

Although the Gulf War film Jarhead can be taken as a critical comment on US Marine core training (shades of Full Metal Jacket), a meditation on the pointlessness of war (humour akin to Catch 22), or one man's unexpurgated view (based on Anthony Swofford's first hand chronicle), its real focus is the psychological trauma of being a soldier, holding a rifle, living in a war zone and becoming, ultimately, so obsessed with that function it never leaves you, even afterwards.

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"Whatever else he may do with his life . . . he will always be a jarhead."

We've long known the terrible mental effects war can have, from the shell shock of World War One to the lingering horrors of Vietnam, but it was perhaps with the Gulf War that such concerns came so much to the fore and so openly, with the discussion of Gulf War Syndrome and other effects. A 1996 Veterans Association study, for instance, reported that Gulf War vets were 50 per cent more likely to die in a motor accident than military personnel not sent to the Gulf War.

What Jarhead does, far more explicitly than Full Metal Jacket or The Deerhunter, is make the link between training that might be likened to brainwashing and the end result of a personality that is devoid of anything that can take back ownership after military duties end. "Jarhead" refers to the Marines having heads like empty jars that are filled with whatever they are told. In psychological terms, the military gives a person a lot of skills that can be used outside and a person signs up for it knowingly - these and many other features distinguish it from more "evil" forms of brainwashing - but the intentional breaking of the ego and re-building it in a manner to suit the military objective is a powerful and often permanent catharsis.

Jake Gyllenhaal shines as the intelligent young recruit, Anthony "Swoff" Swofford, who realises after a certain amount of mind-numbing humiliation that maybe he doesn't want to be a Marine after all. His buddy (with a criminal record) is the opposite; he can't wait to "kill something." Many of the men are rational in-betweeners, who can intellectually justify, or genuinely love, their jobs, although we wonder in the case of the staff sergeant (ably played by Jamie Foxx) if his glorying in the wonderful career and unique opportunity of sights such as the blazing oil fields isn't reflected in the fact that he might not be fit to do very much else.

The storyline is jumpy in parts, enlivened by escapades, as the Marines wait endlessly for action, but it is more than compensated by a brilliantly witty adaptation. The humour outshines the screen version of Catch 22 and captures some of the irony of Three Kings - scenes of burnt-out, fleeing Iraqi family cars - as well as the fact that the soldiers have little knowledge, or interest in, why they are fighting a war, other than to "kick some Iraqi ass."

Director Sam Mendes has scored another success that comments on dysfunctionality almost as poignantly as his earlier American Beauty. As the returning troops ride a bus back home as part of a welcome brigade, a down-and-out Vietnam vet jumps onboard to congratulate them, peeling the veneer of success from scenes of banner-waving, smiling girls. As the final credits fade, we hear the chant, "All my life I've had this dream: to be a bad motherfucker US Marine."

The film seems to say to us: "Be careful what you wish for."

Reviewed on: 18 Jan 2006
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Waiting for war, with Albert Camus, in Operation Desert Shield.
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Anton Bitel ****

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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