Jarhead (15)

Apocalypse whenever
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The Independent Culture

The American war movie appears to have reached an impasse. The genre began with movies about fighting the enemy. Then introspection gradually took hold and movies (Apocalypse Now and Platoon, for example) became about fighting each other.

Now, with Jarhead, the conflict doesn't even get that far: it's based on Anthony Swofford's memoir of American Marines in the 1990-91 Gulf War, but it's really just about fighting boredom. Sam Mendes, as you'd expect from the director of American Beauty and Road to Perdition, exercises a great visual flair and marshals his cast with cool-headed authority; it's a considered piece of work, and may be true to the drudgery and non-eventfulness of modern soldiering. But, for that very reason, it's not remotely an exciting film.

Mendes and his screenwriter, William Broyles Jr, perhaps anticipated this problem and decided that, if they can't offer much of a war, they can at least piggyback the war movie tradition. When we see young Marine recruit Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) being savagely bawled out by his drill sergeant, what else do we think of but Lee Ermey's boot-camp martinet in Full Metal Jacket? Memories of that film keep resurfacing as Swofford and his fellow raw recruits are monotonously brutalised by basic training, their identity reduced to a uniform and a vicious crewcut known as a "jarhead", the word also connoting a vessel emptied of any meaning outside the military. The special sniper unit to which Swofford is assigned also references the Kubrick movie - you may recall that the only talent the victimised soldier-suicide ever displayed was for marksmanship.

But any hopes of our protagonist turning out to be the joker in the pack, à la Yossarian in Catch-22, or an ingenious tormentor of army authority à la Colin Farrell in Joel Schumacher's Tigerland, are very quickly dashed. In Gyllenhaal's performance, Swofford is an opaque, unreadable character, somewhat more savvy than his fellows but in no sense rebellious or sardonic, or even self-questioning. We assume that, once in the desert, the momentous experience of war will wreak some violent change on his psyche, and indeed there are times when he comes close to losing it. But the longer the movie goes on the less interesting he becomes.

So will any of the muscled brutes around him break rank and assert their individuality? At first, the most potent candidate is Swofford's closest pal, Troy, if only because Peter Sarsgaard's shifty gaze and metallic tone always seem primed to explode. In the event, he remains just as enigmatic. Lucas Black shows promise as the Lone Voice of Sanity, but his snarkiness wilts in the desert heat. The rest of the unit fall in with tradition: there's the hard-ass Staff Sergeant (Jamie Foxx), the sensitive, speccy one, the wild-eyed nutter, and so on.

What is Mendes trying to tell us here? Something disturbing about the mindset of young Marines, for sure. In one early scene the trainees gather to watch Apocalypse Now and, testosterone-crazed as they are, cheer along the famous scene in which Robert Duvall leads the helicopter attack on a village, whooping and hollering to the "Ride of the Valkyries" on the soundtrack. It doesn't occur to them that Coppola's film is an indictment of war - they respond to it as a thrill-ride.

That "war is hell" they already know; it's just that being dumped in the middle of Kuwait doesn't feel like war. It does feel like hell, though, and it's not merely the drowning heat. It's a hell of days and months waiting for action, where the only thing they can kill is time. More significantly, it becomes a hell of longing for wives and girlfriends back home, and of dreading the day the letter arrives telling them their woman has gone, left them for their best friend or a neighbour. There's even a roll of dishonour, a board on which a soldier will pin up a photograph of the girl who betrayed him, an obscenity scrawled beneath.

In between monitoring the ominous vacancy of the soldier's lot, Mendes and his cinematographer, Coen brothers regular Roger Deakins, occupy themselves drawing pretty patterns in the sand and sky. Burning oil wells light up the Stygian night; footprints come up cartoonishly white against the dirt-brown sand; an enormous sun wobbles over the horizon like one of Rothko's floating rhomboids. The film references keep coming, including two separate homages to the epic shimmering figures that gradually coalesce in Lawrence of Arabia. And is it fanciful, while watching the scene of soldiers, grouped in a mad, cackling circle around a scorpion fight, to spot a nod to the children enjoying similar rapt cruelty at the start of The Wild Bunch?

Mendes knows his cinema, all right, but a facility with individual scenes is not the same thing as shaping a drama. Too much of Jarhead is built on anticipation and aftermath, with nothing in the middle. When Swofford, out on his own, encounters a scene of charred corpses seated in grotesquely lifelike postures, we feel the sudden horrific desolation, but there's a dismal sense of estrangement from it; we know nothing of why this atrocity happened, who these people were, how it could have been prevented. Yes, we get the point that Swofford and co are traversing a country that's so much sand and death, but there's no dramatic slant on the material, no clue to indicate that the film-makers are alive to the irony of the situation.

When a chopper flies past blaring out the Doors song "Break On Through", Swofford moans "That's Vietnam music - can't they get their own music?" The implication is that war is cyclical, dreary, fathomless. For most of its running time, Jarhead felt worryingly similar.