Hippo Manchester
November 10, 2005

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Film: Jarhead (R)

By Amy Diaz

Jake Gyllenhaal is thick in the Suck (as the Marines call their vocation) in Jarhead, an adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the first Gulf War.

Gulf War One was, battle-wise, all hat, very little cattle. Thousands upon thousands of troops were prepared for a ground war that never materialized, the air battle having accomplished nearly all of whatever the goals of that war were. For months these soldiers were stationed in the desert, bored and terrified. And, though when we think of soldiers we might think of the 30- and 40-something actors who have played soldiers over the years, these soldiers are generally not grown men but 18- to 20-year-old kids. Boys, primarily. Boys in the desert with guns and news of impending battle and nothing but time.

It is not surprising, then, that in many scenes of both Jarhead the book and the movie these Marines act more like frat boys than battle-ready warriors. Anthony Swofford (Gyllenhaal) sees the madness in this behavior — the pointless fights, the vaguely homoerotic hazing, the constant trash-talking — but happily joins in because in the military and especially in the desert it’s this kind of goofing off that keeps you from going insane. After his boot camp days, Swofford arrives in the desert of Saudi Arabia, where the fierce Iraqi military is much discussed but never really seen. So the men clean their weapons and drill and dig holes and worry about their women back home (creating a terrific “Wall of Shame” that collects the photos of the unfaithful ones) and try to eke out unauthorized entertainment (booze, for example) in their regimented world.

There is a desperation in their actions. Several times, the Marines talk about Vietnam — somebody plays Jimi Hendrix and one of them remarks that it’s Vietnam music. “Can’t we get our own music?” he pleads. Without wanting to relive the horrors of Vietnam, they want to have something, some bit of battle, that can let them live up to the legacy of their fathers and uncles and elder officers and sergeants who fought in that war. And, while battle frightens them, it also fascinates them. It would prove their abilities, fulfill their training.

That longing and frustration is best displayed by Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), Swofford’s friend and sniper partner, who breaks down in angry tears begging an officer to please let him kill someone. It doesn’t seem so much like bloodlust as it does like desperation to be allowed to prove that all the suffering of the war’s buildup wasn’t in vain.

Jarhead, the movie, works better in individual moments than it does overall. This is not some triumphant war story nor is it a political tale. It’s a story of monotony and insecurity and unfulfilled wishes by boys who want desperately to be greater than the circumstances into which they were born. It’s, essentially, the story of the actual military.

The book version of this story works fantastically because we get the benefit of both Swofford’s experience and his hindsight ruminations on what happened. Meaning is a harder thing to wring out of the movie, which more or less only shows us the present of 1990. This is a movie where, technically, very little happens. And for that reason, because we ride not a story arc but a timeline from one date to another (with little growth or development but simply a beginning of events and end of events), the movie, like the war itself, can make you antsy for it to get moving.

Jarhead is worth viewing but still leaves you feeling less than completely satisfied.