Post Millennial Malaise 16: Jarhead

In Which We Are Still in the Desert

As discussed in the article about Munich, movies made about the past are never just about the past. Especially when the contemporary world is roiling through a complicated and difficult to parse moment. Such was the case when the Iraq war began in 2003. For much of America it was seen as a justified retribution for the 9/11 attacks, but there was more than a small part of the nation who saw this as another pointless expedition out into the desert by a president named Bush.

Hollywood was in a tricky spot at the time. For much of it’s history filmmakers had been tinkering with the concepts of how to approach American’s military campaign. Becoming a standard bearer of genre for the entire medium. But the Iraq war proved a near impossible nut to crack. Most in the sphere of filmmaking would generally look askance at the operations then being conducted in the Middle East, but the culture at the time was too hesitant, too jingoistic, too uncertain to take direct critiques of the situation.

So instead we get a movie like Jarhead. A film about a war in the desert that isn’t the current war the desert, but has enough similarities that we can extrapolate many thematic connections to what is happening now. A movie that traffics in a veneer of cheap irony, hoping that some audiences won’t notice the immediate dots being connected, and others will sagely nod or chuckle at the dispiriting cycles of life that exists. So instead of a narrative that well and truly interrogates what is happening in the world, we have a story that cashes in on glib reflection and generally beautiful production.

Jarhead is then a movie made at a cross roads. A prestige war flick that wants to tickle the well informed viewers while also horrifying them, but it’s also kind of scared of the current moment. Aware that it could be bum-rushed by a crowd of right wing crowers declaring that Hollywood was at it again what with it’s anti-military stance. So instead director Sam Mendes and writer William Broyles Jr. have concocted a kind of Frankenstein’s monster. A story that is neither here nor there, not about past nor the present. In an effort to walk the tightrope of being inquisitive on the consequences of combat in the Middle East and avoiding mainstream controversy we end up with something that really does neither well at all.

The story of the film is based on the memoirs of Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) a listless marine recruit who seems to immediately regret enlisting. As he goes through boot camp he gets a motivation boost from classic hard ass Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), who encourages Swofford to be a sniper. Anthony cottons to this new role and he and his partner Alan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) are packed off and sent to Saudi Arabia to enjoy the existential tedium that was the Gulf War. Here we get a variation on pointless exercise, kind of “Waiting for Saddam” if you will. A group of over aggro individuals dying for action and going mad from boredom. When the shooting actually starts none of our characters actually ever get to pull the trigger and get a theoretical win. It’s all for naught.

Jarhead suffers from two primary problems. One is the already mentioned neither here nor there nature of the film and how it suffered to elucidate an interesting thematic idea. The other is the simple fact that this movie isn’t that different from Three Kings, and Three Kings does all of this stuff better than Jarhead.

To wit both Three Kings and Jarhead preoccupy themselves with the concept of war where on the ground soldiers don’t actually engage with the supposed enemy. Where Jarhead takes this concept and details it in a form of a long droning descent into near madness, Three Kings dispenses with it in the first shot. The comparisons grow from there but the main problem at hand is that Sam Mendes as a filmmaker is an incredibly fussy man. He’s trying to make a movie that is as comic as it is serious, but can’t help fill it with the trappings and ornamentation of a important prestige picture.

So Mendes is searching for a balance in tone, amusing tedium to full blown insanity. This material, however, can’t really bear the weight of either in a successful manner. This issue arises early on. When Swofford is making his way through the early and difficult days of boot camp the audience is treated with a cheeky needle drop in the for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Even in the year of our lord 2005 one must assume that such an ironic juxtaposition has been done to death. At this point we’ve had more than a decade of Tarantino, Anderson (both Paul and Wes), Soderbergh and more carefully curating soundtracks to make an emotional or ironic impact, and Mendes goes for the most obvious and trite choice imaginable.

These needle drops persist through the entire picture. Never letting the audience take a break that this whole affair is coddled in an ironic haze. Said irony seems to be the only mode that Jarhead can operate. Every funny moment (the troops playing football in the sun) to dramatic moment (digging sleeping ditches in a rain of oil) is played with the heaviest wink imaginable as Mendes assures the audience that he knows what he is doing.

What he is doing isn’t that great. Because Mendes is aiming to undercut the grandiosity of the war picture by calling attention to a variety of cinematic reference points and then “subverting” them. Yes there are direct pulls from things like Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and Lawrence of Arabia. These tributes are handsomely constructed by the able hand of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, but the purpose becomes muddled because Mendes can’t seem to find the right joke to puncture these reverent tributes. It’s like a boy trying to make everyone laugh by farting in a cathedral, might pull some gut snickers, but is not nearly as clever as one thinks.

The imagistic quality of the film is indeed impressive. The sweep of the desert slowly morphing into full blown expressionism and nightmarish realization. Darkened oil fields glowing with fire. Bombed out wreckage serving as the only visual marker for miles. Figures in the wastes morphing in and out of form. If there’s a thing Mendes gets right from this production it is in these distinct and engaging frames. No matter how surface level they are.

However he’s more uncertain with his actors. Gyllenhaal is actually a bit of smart casting, transforming the child star into a more adult figure (we get lots of butt shots in this movie). Yet Gyllenhaal feels weirdly lifeless here. We know that he’s an actor with a deep well of bizarre charisma, and he seems restricted from tapping it. Even when he starts to lose his grip on reality it’s in a manner that still recalls other movies. He’s just doing a bit of Martin Sheen, a snidge of O’Toole, creeping up to D’Onforio but never really crossing the line. 

Foxx does a better job. Delicately balancing the role of hard ass and father figure for the troops. He’s both a source of resentment and comfort, and a tragic ideal of a man who quite literally can’t get out of the desert. A leader drawn back again and again to the conflicts that the US cooks up. Despite living through the movie a brief throwaway at the end demonstrates that he’s back in the Middle East and this time he might never leave. It’s one of the few touches that the film makes that isn’t driven entirely by glib irony.

Still glib irony is the main flavor presented in Jarhead. A tone that becomes tedious incredibly quickly. Mendes constantly wants to nudge and wink at the audience, but only in a manner facile enough to pass the conservative sniff test at the time. If people reflect on the past to make sense of the current moment than Mendes simply muddies the water on what he wants to accomplish. 

Odds and Ends

  • Speaking of classic film pulls: Jarhead is edited by Walter Murch, the legendary talent behind Apocalypse Now and the sound of Star Wars.
  • Mendes has always been an odd duck in the prestige realm. Winning so much acclaim with a debut that kind of sets things off kilter resulting is a jumbled middle period that sees things like this abut Away We Go.
  • This was Foxx’s first big role after both Ray and Collateral came out in the previous year. You can really feel the buzz as he tries to lift this material.
  • Interesting that after this movie there aren’t really any more big projects about The Gulf War. Guess people just ran out of things to say.

Next Week: The Director of Crash puzzles out the Iraq War with In The Valley of Elah.