The history of the military film has had several notable eras, from the melancholy of THE BIG PARADE (featuring the divine John Gilbert in arguably his best role) from the post WWI, silent era, to the jingoistic excesses during and just after WWII with such offerings as an iconic John Wayne THE FLYING LEATHERNECKS, followed by the cynicism and black humor of CATCH-22 and M.A.S.H, and the nihilism of THE DEER HUNTER and FULL METAL JACKET. With JARHEAD, based on Anthony Swofford’s arresting memoir of the same name about his time in Saudi Arabia during the of the first Gulf war, new trails are blazed. This is a procedural of how a gung-ho 20-year-old goes from innocent, at least from the standpoint of military culture, to a trained killer desensitized to his civilian aversion to violence. That may have been covered before, but in this case, it hasn’t turned him into a monster or a hulking shell of his former self. He’s still the same guy, but one that’s gone down a road emotionally, from which there is no return.
It is an intrinsically interesting process, and one well served with Jake Gyllenhaal as Swofford. His doughy face and essential gentleness put through the rigors of basic training with a drill instructor who attempts to put his head through a chalkboard, and specialized scout/sniper training with one (Jaime Foxx) who uses live ammunition during drills and forces his troops to play football in the Saudi desert in full chemical suits. He toughens up, and in the process, so does the audience, so that by the time, late in the film, the first corpses appear and the oil fields turn the desert into something from Dante’s “Inferno”, his deadened expression in the face of the carnage not only seems natural, it seems essential. In perfect contrast is Peter Sarsgaard as his fellow sniper and best buddy, who delivers the sort of understated performance that bespeaks something dangerous and unpredictable underneath. Sarsgaard, an actor of enormous complexity, may have second billing here, but he is the equal of Gyllenhaal in every respect.
The film, like the book, is determinedly non-political about the war itself, beyond, that is, a glimpse of someone reading “Catch-22” in the background, a Texas boy explaining the world according to the oilmen, and a sign on the tarmac where the troops land, the only sign, it is worth noting, that has one word on it. Oil. In English and Arabic. The war, in fact, is beside the point. This is about male bonding and boredom. The former forged in the military culture insulated from civilian life and the latter expressed in ways fitting the macho, testosterone driven culture of which they are a part. Endless rounds of cleaning their rifles and pondering what their women are doing back home and with whom are interspersed with being trotted out for the press to put on a good show and group dry humpings, one of which brings whoops of enthusiasm from the willing participants, the other somewhat less enthusiastic displays. That the pent-up rage waiting to be directed at the enemy turns suicidally homicidal, or homicidally suicidal, becomes if not understandable, at least a reasonable response to the given stimulus of six months in the desert with nothing to do.
Emotion is the problem here. Director Sam Mendes, who mined the hollowness of suburbia with such transcendence in AMERICAN BEAUTY, maintains a detachment from the subject matter, throwing a barrier between the action on screen and the audience. There is macho bravura, there is the psychological toll of waiting for war and then of participating in it, but there is no hook that grabs the viewer, no intimacy beyond the obsession by the characters with bodily functions of all kinds and a memorable dance by Gyllenhaal wearing nothing but two Santa’s hats. Unlike the book, which was not afraid to track Swofford’s inner life and the idiosyncrasies and worse of his family life, Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. literally close the door on all of that, leaving us with, to quote another procedural, just the facts, ma’am. To have sentimentalized the military experience in JARHEAD would not have been true to the material at all, but to leave the audience on the outside looking in undercuts the impact the story could have had.