Saturday, November 05, 2005
Don't worry, be happy
Jarhead begins with a basic training scene that transparently apes the virtuosic opening of Full Metal Jacket. At first, I cringed at what I thought was a hip "wink-wink" moment; by the end of the movie, the scene had come into focus. This was a war fought by kids who knew of bigger wars from bigger movies. Jarhead isn't quite as great as Kubrick's film, but it belongs in the same ballpark. Sam Mendes' film comes damn close to being a definitive portrait of a war that was over as soon as it began, only to be followed by an inferior sequel.
Jarhead has met with some criticism for not being overtly political. With the exception of Three Kings and the French Plantation sequence in Apocalypse Now Redux, I can't think of any great war films that are. An adaptation of Anthony Swafford's first-person recollections of the Gulf War, the film instead focuses on the nature of men who go to war. I say "men" not to be dismissive of women in the military; Jarhead is largely about male insecurity; the desire to give one's life meaning through allegiance to a so-called "greater cause," the male fantasy of protecting one's fellow man, and the constant, maddening doubt the protagonists feel about the fidelity of their girlfriends and wives back home. At one point, Fergus (Brian Geraghty) glances as a picture of Swafford (Jake Gyllenhaal)'s girfriend, scantily clad in his USMC t-shirt, and asks, "Doesn't she have any of her own clothes?" I couldn't help but think of my sister and my future brother-in-law, and the roles that were assigned them both when he signed up.
The first half of the film follows Swafford and the rest of his elite sniper squad, led by the gung-ho Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), as they sit around in the desert, waiting for something to happen. Here, the film is all about boredom, sexual frustration, and the urge for release in the form of a kill. Early on, we see a theatre filled with Marines watching the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence in Apocalypse Now, aroused at the sight of helicopter fire and completely unmoved by the shots of fleeing mothers and children. Whether the Corps created this bloodlust or simply freed what was already there, its clear that for these guys, combat has become an orgasm, a moment of clarity. The moment never happens, and while I can't feel too bad for Swafford because he never got to shoot anyone in the head, the larger notion of chasing something - anything - to believe in is moving. Swafford repeatedly tries to have the space for religion on his dogtags changed to "no preference," and the unspoken assumption is that the Corps will give him something the church hasn't. While we see that it has for Sykes and Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), Swafford's spotter, for our protagonist it is ultimately more emptiness. It's war as masturbation.
Mendes films those vacant moments with unforgettable images. A gas-masked football game staged for the benefit of a newscrew turns into a man-on-man pigpile. Actually, there's a lot of homoeroticism in this movie - I'm glad that Mendes turned the common subtext of war movies into plain text. The soldiers alternately seem ready to screw or beat the snot out of each other, sometimes both. A brilliant scene midway between Swafford and Fergus allows the tension, sexual and otherwise, to come to the fore, and it's perfectly disturbing. And the actors are uniformly great. Gyllenhaal, who I had dismissed a bit as a droopy-eyed cipher, displays layers of anger, ferocity and sensitivity that threw me completely off-guard (though I wish he hadn't thrown in a Donnie Darko reference). Jamie Foxx has a sincerity as an actor that works brilliantly in this role - he did great work in Ray, to be sure, but this and Collateral are more worthy of his presence. It was nice to see Dennis Haysbert in a smaller role - his Major Lincoln is perversely funny. And Peter Sarsgaard deserves all the credit in the world; he's quietly becoming a master at understated portrayls of men who reveal more through small gestures than through big, showy scenes, and Troy is no exception. The climactic "Let him have the shot!" scene could have been muddled in less capable hands; in Sarsgaard's, it is devastating.
Mendes' instincts here are just spot-on - the soundtrack, which uses Bobby McFerrin and C&C Music Factory, and the references to Metroid (gamers - is the ninth-level thing accurate?) and Rambo squarely place us in 1991, in the midst of a non-war. The burning oil wells and charred bodies of the second half are handled perfectly; instead of bashing us over the head with easy "War is hell" nonsense, Mendes allows them to be quitely haunting. He even comes up with one image of a horse that touches the ecstatc truth that Herzog is after. DP Roger Deakins and editor Walter Murch (who also worked on Apocalypse Now) both do pitch-perfect work. Thomas Newman's score is both exhilarating and ominous, echoing the wet dreams and nightmares of our heroes.
This is a remarkable film - a meditative, philosophical examination of war, and while it mostly avoids direct comparisons to the current war, it certainly gives a good deal of insight into why decent guys like my sister's boyfriend signed up for such an insane war. It's problematic at times - it doesn't give us any answers and leaves us with far more questions. But then, so did Full Metal Jacket.