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Movie Review Jarhead – Inertia In The Desert

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Jarhead deals with the whole Desert Storm operation. We follow the protagonist Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) through his boot camp military training and on to sniper school and from there to the desert. The Gulf War breaks out and Swofford is sent to Saudi Arabia with Desert Shield. After 174 days Desert Storm begins. It doesn’t last for more than five days and then the whole experience is over.

There are some inherent difficulties to making a war movie without taking all the established war movie clichés into account. What you can do, and what Jarhead does do, is incorporate them, blatantly and obviously. Jarhead uses the Ride of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now! as a sing along scene. It references Full Metal Jacket in the obligatory boot camp scene in a way that makes the viewer feel that the drill instructor has taken his lines straight out of the movie. The Deer Hunter figures in one marine’s public humiliation when his wife has sent him the movie but tapes over it with a home movie porn version of her own adultery. As a matter of fact the movie is saturated with intertextual references to movies, TV-shows and literature – everything from Hemingway to Camus’ The Stranger.

In a way this hyperawareness of the intertextuality creates a kind of saturation that makes it difficult to thread the connections into anything coherent. It becomes the backdrop for the main story, Swofford’s experiences in the desert. Swofford’s voice over offers all kinds of opinions about the abusive behaviour of his superiors, the nature of the soldier’s life and problems at home.

The one thing more prevalent in this movie than any other war movie I have seen, is the frustration of inaction. All the training, all the waiting, it translates into stupid mindless games and drills and penalism and some very messed-up group dynamics when the soldiers are trapped in a holding pattern they can’t do anything about.

Swofford says “For most problems the Marine is issued a solution. If ill, go to sickbay. If wounded, call a Corpsman. If dead, report to graves registration. If losing his mind, however, no standard solution exists.” This sense of frustration and pent up aggression translates well enough to the viewer in the scene where Swofford and his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) finally get a mission and are interrupted when they literally have their target in the crosshairs. They never get to take the shot and then the campaign is over.

The viewer is given various points of view on what the soldiers are doing and the reasons why they do it, from Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) who quite simply loves his job, a revelation he gives while watching oil towers burning on the horizon, to the surprisingly critical Kruger (Lucas Black) who flat out questions orders and shines a light on the less noble financial purpose of the whole thing, to the requisite psycho misfit Fowler (Evan Jones) and the ill placed Fergus (Brian Geraghty) who seems too meek to be a solider in the first place.

Overall the impression of heat, inertia and waiting is reflected in the bleak washed-out imagery of the heat and the desert. The flashbacks of Swofford’s father and uncle, soldiers from a very different war, highlight how armed conflict has changed, but also how the soldier’s attitude to war has had to change due to the heightened awareness of media, the influx of information and the nature of war itself from a technical point of view. This is a war without any kind of front.

It’s not easy to convey the restless frustration of inaction to the viewer without actually impacting the way you react to the movie as such. I, for one, find myself conflicted by a few things, but chief amongst them is probably the sense that the very pointlessness of the whole thing is still juxtaposed with some kind of justification of the brotherhood of soldiers. That’s is still expressed as inviolable, despite the fact that Swofford snaps in the desert and threatens to shoot Fowler and fantasizes about killing one of his own officers. There is no real sense of Swofford being disillusioned by his experiences, he seems to have very few illusions going in to the army. This is not an overtly political or anti-war movie, but then nothing about this movie is particularly overt.

It’s been stated before that war movies in general always tell two stories. The story of the war itself and the story of the soldiers who fight it. That is no less true here. This war is over fast, the political and financial motives less white hat than WWII and less sticky than Vietnam and perhaps that is why the contextualization of the artifice of the movie itself is so much in effect. The story of the soldiers is a coming of age tale with strong overtones of the macho ethos contradicted by how each word in the letters from home get analyzed and puzzled over. The worst thing that befalls Swofford is a bad hangover and the suspicion that his girlfriend might be cheating on him. That makes it hard to be heroic and it muddies the waters enough that the viewer isn’t given any easy way to position themselves on this. Then again, I for one, am willing to believe that is what the director, Sam Mendez, intended.

Jarhead directed by Sam Mendes is based on a novel by Anthony Swofford about his experiences in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during Desert Storm. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal (Anthony Swafford), Scott MacDonald (D.I. Fitch), Peter Sarsgaard (Alan Troy), Jamie Foxx (Staff Sgt. Sykes), Lucas Black (Chris Kruger), Brian Geraghty (Fergus O’Donnell), Damion Poitier (Poitier), Brianne Davis (Kristina), Tyler Sedustine (Harris), Jacob Vargas (Juan Cortez), Laz Alonso (Ramon Escobar), Evan Jones (Dave Fowler), Iván Fenyö (Pinko), John Krasinski (Corporal Harrigan), Chris Cooper(Lt. Col. Kazinski) and Marty Papazian (Brian Dettman).

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