Jarhead (15)

War for the 'Jackass' generation
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In the Gulf War drama Jarhead, planes fly overhead blaring out the Doors, and a young Marine complains, "That's Vietnam music, man - can't we get our own fuckin' music?" But Sam Mendes' film suggests that the Gulf was more of a movie war, fought by troops with Hollywood on their mind. As black rain falls from the sky while the Kuwaiti oil fields blaze, one soldier's first thought is of James Dean striking it rich in Giant.

Jarhead paints the Gulf as a war fought by soldiers who'd seen all the Vietnam films, and misunderstood them. In one scene, a roomful of young Marines watch the sequence from Apocalypse Now in which American planes bomb a Vietnamese village to the sound of "The Ride of the Valkyries". Coppola's intent was to make monstrous the glorifying bombast of an assault on civilians; but Jarhead's Marines cheer enthusiastically, singing along with the Wagner.

Jarhead makes the bitter point that the lessons of history (and of historical satire) have not been learnt, least of all by the grunt on the ground. But it also suggests that even anti-war films are prone to advertise war, to turn its horrors into a dizzying Sensurround rush. While Mendes criticises this tendency, you can't help feeling that this scene is itself hymning the rabble-rousing energies of cinema.

Jarhead, for all its intent to deglamorise, is itself an example of the modern war film at its most prestigious, spectacular and breathtakingly photographed (by Roger Deakins). Presumably, Jarhead offers a reasonably accurate representation of what the Gulf was like for the Marine on the ground; scripted by an ex-Marine, William Broyles Jr, it's adapted from the memoirs of Anthony Swofford, who served in Saudi Arabia at the age of 20. Narrated in voice-over by Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), the film begins with the idealistic, Camus-reading recruit undergoing a brutal training designed to turn men into machines. The term "jarhead" refers to the Marines' savage haircut, implying that the recruit's head becomes an empty receptacle. The film's first section heavily echoes Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket: cavernous training rooms, sergeant jamming his clenched-fist scowl into a private's face, arbitrary punishments and humiliations meted out by the cruelly droll Staff Sergeant Sykes (a compelling Jamie Foxx).

No less gruelling for Swofford's platoon, once it reaches the Gulf, is the sheer boredom. The film is at its best evoking the grinding monotony of forces life: the futile manoeuvres, the endless round of masturbation and melancholy. The bitter cap on it all is the apparent inevitability of betrayal at home: a camp fixture is a "Wall of Shame" devoted to unfaithful wives and girlfriends (Jarhead is harshly matter-of-fact about the misogyny of army culture).

The soldiers' frustrations are pretty much expressed in sexual terms: the men turn into walking phalluses, aching for discharge. Sent on a sniper mission, Swofford and his comrade Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, whose numbed chilliness was never more expressive) are interrupted at the very last moment. "It's my kill! It's my kill!", Troy screams in tearful frustration, as if suffering a bad case of coitus interruptus.

The war sequences are unsettlingly beautiful: as the oil rains down, a black horse wanders through the flame-lit air, in the tradition of the war film as a platform for the Savage Sublime. The film's truly horrific sequence is a recreation of the "Highway of Death" between Kuwait and Basra, on which Iraqi troops were scorched alive by allied bombing. The sequence becomes an opportunity for Swofford - a writer in the making, remember - to sit alone and meditate: there's no atrocity in any war film that can't, ultimately, become an opportunity for bleak poetry.

Mendes is clearly aware that his film is entangled in the contradictions of war cinema. But Jarhead acts as both commentary on and illustration of the way that the genre has lost its sting through overexposure: even the most pitiless satires fade into knockabout celebrations of army culture. Echoes of M*A*S*H and Catch-22 here pale into farce: when a football match in full chemical gear is staged for the TV cameras, the men rebel, but in the manner of a frat lark rather than a protest.

I wouldn't say Jarhead could be seen as Marine-recruiting material exactly, but I can't imagine any sufficiently boneheaded young man being deterred by it. All war's horrors finally become badges of male fortitude: the Gulf conflict becomes an extended episode of Jackass. While a certain shift in young Americans' consciousness between Vietnam and the 1990s is one of the film's targets, Jarhead still comes across to an extent as war for Maxim readers. At the film's end, the Gulf does get its own soundtrack, as the platoon dances to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power". But you don't feel that the power - the institution of war - is really being fought in Jarhead, or questioned in any significant way.