The Waiting Game
Based on the bestselling memoir,
Thursday, November 10, 2005
With Jarhead, the director of American Beauty
has adapted Anthony Swofford’s 2003 bestseller about his
maddening stint with the Marines during the first Gulf war
into an equally maddening movie that portrays Our Boys as
either tentative heroes, forever on the cusp but never quite
allowed to achieve greatness, or borderline psychotics,
preprogrammed for mayhem that never arrives, and who then,
consciously or unconsciously, turn the savagery of combat
JARHEAD ( * * * )
Directed by Sam Mendes.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black and Chris Cooper.
(R, 123 mins.) | At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.
This is a war film with precious little war, which was also the crux of Swofford’s book. So with none of Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guards even displaying the courtesy to show up to the fight, the Marines end up sitting around staging scorpion fights, “hydrating,” masturbating, getting outrageously drunk, or worrying what their girls back home are doing (it appears most of them are banging the metaphoric mailman).
Sublimation becomes the name of this grueling 112-degrees-in-the-shadelessness-game, and the 20-year-old Swofford (nicknamed Swoff), a sniper who never once gets to fire his rifle and nearly goes mad because of it, marks his days in a regimented schedule of nonevents. Their advance scout-and-sniper unit’s leader, Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) drills them mercilessly throughout boot camp and for kicks makes them play football in full chemical drag for the visiting media, but he’s no R. Lee Ermey. He confesses to Swoff that even though a cushy family job awaits him stateside, he’s chosen to stay in the desert because he loves the gig, which marks him as either mad or masochistic or, best bet, both. Swoff’s target acquisition partner, a quietly simmering enigma named Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, easily the best thing about the film), at first seems to be the unit’s hovering conscience, but ends up, like everyone else, rocketing toward insanity by film’s end.
To be fair, Operation Desert Storm’s ground war lasted a scant four days, with most of the John Wayne heroics (or massacres, depending on your point of view) going to the flyboys piloting the F/A-18 Hornets above, cutting the dusty grunts out of the picture entirely.
Sam Mendes’ film sports a wealth of grimly beautiful
imagery from the Coen brothers’ regular cinematographer Roger
Deakins—the plumes of smoke bursting skyward from the
sabotaged oil wells; a shocking, eerie stretch of the infamous
“highway of death” littered with the charred corpses of
fleeing Iraqis; the crimson glow of a desert sunset—and its
smooth, circuitous editing (from the great Walter Murch, whose
work on the steadfastly anti-war Apocalypse Now is
shown being watched by the Marines as an ironically
inappropriate sort of machismo stimulant) moves with the
deadly grace of a sandy, shifting dune.
Jarhead fails to ignite much more than those crusty, luminous derricks, however, because it lacks any noticeable tone, political or otherwise; Swoff’s narrative viewpoint is chiefly one of impatience, and when bloodshed fails to materialize, the grunts react like children denied their candy. War not only dehumanizes, Mendes’ film seems to be saying, it also infantilizes, reducing the semi-best and the not-quite-brightest to the level of squalling infants grubbing at high-powered pacifiers and making messes wherever they go. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is a lovely film.