'Jarhead' becomes exercise in endurance

by Chetan Mehta | 11/7/05 6:00am

The term "jarhead" is military jargon for marine. The movie "Jarhead" is a simple synonym for tedium. "Jarhead" isn't a drama, and it's not a comedy. The film isn't anti-war or pro-war. It's neither action movie nor war film. In fact, it isn't much of anything. It is a synthesis of already-done moments from earlier war films that add up to nothing.

I suppose it isn't surprising that "Jarhead" carries an air of the familiar; its narrator states, "every war is different, every war is the same" during the final moments of the film. Either the strain of originality is sorely lacking or we, as the audience, have seen every variation possible on the subject of war.

"Jarhead" is an adaptation of Anthony Swofford's eponymous 2003 Gulf War memoir. The film concerns itself with the travails of one young grunt who mistakenly joins the Marines -- "I was 20 years old and stupid enough to sign a contract," he says in his own words -- and is sent to Iraq as a sniper during the Kuwaiti invasion in order to fend off "Saddam Insane." He is promised "the mother of all battles," but the closest he gets to mortal combat is as witness to a scorpion fight that the Marines set up. We see his company waiting through endless months of anxiety while parked on the Saudi border. They're decked out in scary-looking suits that are sure to protect them from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but don't do much against boredom, angst and the need for constant masturbation. They pass time by playing football in gas masks, trash-talking their cheating wives and girlfriends back home and, of course, jerking off.

Meanwhile, we get to know absolutely nothing about them. Swofford's background is whooshed away in a series of closing doors -- his mother may be crazy, his sister is in a hospital and his father, himself a veteran, likes to look intimidating at the breakfast table. There is no context to his choice to join the Corps, yet he is the most fleshed-out of all the characters in the film.

His closest friend is his spotter, Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), who has some sort of criminal background and an almost religious devotion to the Corps. The others in his company include a sadistic prankster, a geek, a Latino family man and a politically conscious Texan whose remarks are met with derision by both his comrades and superiors. Jamie Foxx, fresh from his Oscar win, electrifies the screen with his portrayal of the tough-but-fair Sgt. Sykes, their leader. He gets them through basic training with some clever quips, hard-ass talk and a genuine concern for their futures. We've seen this character so many times -- Clint Eastwood in "Heartbreak Ridge" comes to mind -- but it's just a joy to see it done "right" with emotional depth. Foxx's monologue about why he is in the Corps is one of the few affecting moments in an otherwise distant film.

The references to previous (superior) war films come hard and heavy. The boot camp scenes seem to have been lifted directly from Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." In another scene, the Marines, trying to get pumped up for war, watch the helicopter scene from "Apocalypse Now," played against "Ride of the Valkyries." It whips them up into a frenzied, homoerotic bloodlust as they sing along, hug each other, act out what's on the screen and grin to the point of tears. Audiences back then were horrified by that scene, unable to shift their eyes from the slaughter. The Marines are similarly transfixed, but their hope is to recreate the bloodletting. "The Deer Hunter" also makes an appearance, but is unceremoniously booted by a homemade porn tape that has been recorded over it.

There are little captions throughout the film that display the time elapsed and the number of troops on ground since the invasion, but they only add to the tedium. I understand the filmmakers were trying to accentuate the fact that the massive buildup -- 500,000 American men and women at one point -- was for nothing. But the images would've had more relevance if they had been placed surreptitiously against a continuing story arc; in their current form, they are simply bookends to a docudrama. And then there's that morbid refrain that litters every other frame of the film: "Welcome to the suck." For some reason, the filmmakers think the recurring catchphrase will make up for the minimal characterization.

One thing working in the film's favor is the vivid imagery; the desert, in which nothing happens, has never seemed so alive. Sam Mendes, who previously directed "American Beauty" and "Road to Perdition," is still adapting to the conventions of film -- he was previously a celebrated stage director -- hence his obsession with "over-composing" shots so that they can adorn posters or billboards. There is both an upside and a downside to this. Much like Mendes' other two films, "Jarhead" is littered with "epic images" of great beauty that will awe you when on the screen, but unlike "American Beauty," they will fail to resonate because the figures exploring those sumptuous landscapes are as alien to you as the sands they currently inhabit.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the constant figure of Swofford. The actor is finally given the spotlight in a major motion picture, with a role that could win awards, but he blows it. His portrayal of Swofford is neither interesting nor complex; he seems to be rolling with the suck, not overcoming it. His monotone voiceover has more depth than his one-note performance onscreen.

Another young actor with great potential, Peter Sarsgaard -- who impressed in "Shattered Glass" and "Kinsey" -- is given little with which to work; his one-dimensional character kills any relevance the film may have had by announcing, "Fuck politics. We're here now."

The movie's apolitical stance would've been tolerable if it were an exciting action film set in a war (which it isn't) or if we weren't currently embroiled in another war in Iraq (which we are).

There is nothing admirable about "militant moderation" -- it is the bane of great art. Making a point with eloquence is the greater challenge. "Jarhead" never dares to breach that limit; it is content to brazenly observe the dull and stand in awe at the profanity and sexual perversions of its characters. (Soldiers curse like no tomorrow and are obsessed with sex? Get out of here!) It has existential angst in spades, in the form of perpetual inaction -- it seems only appropriate that Swofford is twice found reading "The Stranger" by Albert Camus.

It seems curious that Mendes has chosen to repeat the misfire of "Road to Perdition," which is another film essentially about nothing. His sole success so far is "American Beauty," which treks the same territory as "Jarhead" -- boredom in the desert vs. boredom in suburbia -- but has an outstanding performance by Kevin Spacey and a vicious script to anchor it. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr., himself a Vietnam veteran, had a difficult task in composing the script: making a film about tedium without subjecting the audience to the same. He does not succeed.

"Four days, four hours, one minute. That was my war," concludes Swofford. "Jarhead" lasts two hours and two minutes. That was my nap.

Warning to the wise: don't go to the suck.

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