The pointlessness of war is a continuing debate with the war on terrorism and calls for troops to pull out of Iraq. With Jarhead, the first film to deal with the Gulf War, that debate is foregrounded with a groups of fresh-faced marines signing up and being shipped off a desert war with nothing for them to kill. ‘Welcome to the suck’ they blearily state.
The central character is Swoff, played by a surprisingly butch Jake Gyllenhaal, who signs up to the US Marines leaving a beautiful girlfriend at home. There he is trained as part of a sniper unit before being sent off the Gulf War amid plenty of promise of bloodshed and fighting. If you think that sounds like numerous other war films, you would be right. The real area of interest is the Gulf War aspect, which provides some tense and uncomfortable moments despite the lack of action for the war-ready troops.
…in a short borrowing of R. Lee Ermey’s stellar performance
The training scenes initially seem to be following those of Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987) in a short borrowing of R. Lee Ermey’s stellar performance, but it soon develops thanks to Jamie Foxx’s role as Staff Sgt. Sykes. He provides the guiding figure for a sniper team that also includes surly Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and an assortment of average-Joe recruits. Pranks, rule breaking and harsh punishment are eclipsed when one marine is shot in the head during basic training. If preparation can kill a man, what will the real action on the front line entail?
Well, if it’s the Gulf War, not very much at all. What with the fighting taking place in the desert, there was no real engagement with the enemy for troops — attacks were taken care of by aircraft, leaving the soldiers to spend their time losing girlfriends, getting bored and performing countless drills in the soaring heat. News reporters come to interview them, they must lie about how much they enjoy serving their country. The whole film feels like one long dreary day where your potential is thrown out the window and repetitiveness breeds more receptiveness. When Swoff’s girlfriend seems to be doing the dirty on him, it’s unsurprising he’s pissed off he’s in the Gulf to snipe at walls of sand and watch planes fly overhead to do the real fighting.
…are as awe-inspiring as a sunrise or sunset
Swoff, Troy, Sykes and the rest of the sniper unit do venture off towards the front line for the final third of the film and director Sam Mendes captures harrowing scenes. Shots of numerous distant oil wells on fire are as awe-inspiring as a sunrise or sunset. The smoke bellows from flames on the desert surface, high into the blue sky while around the soldiers there is nothing. As they get closer, oil rains down on them — on their clothes, in their face. The horror of the Gulf War is not the fighting; it is the surviving the insanity of not fighting. At one point Jake sits among the burnt corpses of innocent civilians in the desert and starts talking to them. I think I would too.
What propels Jarhead is the sense that training for war will eventually lead to being involved in war and shooting someone. When that does not happen, the message of the film comes into full view: the futile mental struggles faced by troops involved in the Gulf War. Gyllenhaal’s despondent Swoff provides the perfect centre for the film — neither crazy nor enthused by his situation he becomes lost in a world as lifeless and monotonous as the desert. Endless masturbation is the only satisfaction during the joyless days. The let down of Jarhead is that it captures this aimless existence so well that it ends with a montage of returning home scenes revealing little more than the time in the Gulf was wasted. Perhaps it is fitting that the pointless nature of the film is evoked in the empty feeling I had when I left the cinema — it succeeded in making me as apathetic about war as Swoff and the other snipers. Only Sykes seems to have had a good time: “I thank God for every fucking day he gives me in the corps, oorah” he states. Jarhead certainly casts doubt on the motivation behind those that can make such claims, but it lacks the insight into how this thinking can be carved out of a mindless existence. Being a marine in the Gulf sucks and is pointless. Jarhead does not suck, indeed it revels in the suck of war, but be prepared to try and make sense of a pointless feeling when you leave the cinema.