When a Marine speaks, it doesn’t have to be either pro-war or anti-war — it can be just the voice of a Marine. This fact is hard for some people to accept, which is why Jarhead may end up as the most misunderstood movie of the year.
In this irreverent, lyrical, disturbing, mesmerizing and multilayered memoir of a young sniper in the first Gulf War (1991), the voice of Lance Cpl. Anthony Swofford may be ignored in the din made by those who wish he’d said what they want to hear. After seeing the movie twice and reading the wildly divergent opinions of a dozen other film critics, I can only conclude that Jarhead is two movies. There’s the version seen by most film critics — people who have never been a Marine or seen combat. The other version, the one the filmmakers made, is doggedly faithful to the book on which it was based. It manages in 123 minutes to capture a small and surprisingly realistic sliver of one man’s memory of one war.
As my Marine husband says, “War is 90 percent bare-ass boredom and 10 percent utter terror,” so Jarhead‘s pace may be slow-going for some. Worse, some might agree with critics who complain that Jarhead is “ripping off” other war movies.
Jarhead, in fact, may be the most unique war movie ever. No battles, no crashing helicopters, no gushing chest wounds. British-born director Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition) and cinematographer Rogert Deakins (A Beautiful Mind) wisely let scribe William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13), a Vietnam veteran, translate Swofford’s very American story to the screen by contrasting the gritty details of ordinary men with the haunting landscape of a vast desert far from home. Tom Newman’s gut-thumping score never lets fear out of viewers’ mind.
Above all, the actors have created characters that are so real you can smell their sweat. Young Jake Gyllenhaal (Proof) is incredible as “Swoff,” seamlessly transforming a goofy, wide-eyed clown into a war-weary man. Jamie Foxx (Ray) is riveting as Staff Sgt. Sykes, who thanks God for “every day He gives me in the Corps.”
Swofford’s natural abilities take him to the most prestigious job in the Corps — a Marine sniper. He’s the shooter, one half of the two-man team. His spotter, who’s also his best friend and conscience, is Cpl. Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, Flightplan). Proving the Marine Corps maxim that 10 percent of any group is a raging asshole, one of the snipers is a squishy-faced psychotic named Fowler (Evan Jones, The Last Shot). He’s disgusting, and you can hate him as much as his fellow Marines do.
The more you train in peace, the less you bleed in war. So the Marines train endlessly, in boot camp, sniper training and finally in the merciless heat of the Saudi desert during Desert Shield/Storm. While the allied air forces wipe out Iraq’s air power and make mincemeat of the ground troops and unlucky civilians, the Marines maintain a state of “suspicious vigilance” while protecting Saudi oil. They endure boredom and loneliness in the hallowed ways of young Marines — they masturbate, razz one another, clean their rifles, reread letters from home, swagger and fight, go crazy, argue about politics and religion and the meaning of life, get drunk and masturbate some more.
By the time the snipers are sent into action, the Iraqi forces are retreating. Swofford’s war lasts exactly “four days, four hours and one minute,” and he never once fires his rifle.
But that doesn’t mean his war is peaceful. Ground troops are strafed by their own planes. The sky rains oil from more than 700 Kuwaiti wells the Iraqis set on fire. On the infamous “Highway of Death” from Kuwait to Iraq, Swofford and his platoon find the incinerated remains of more than 1,500 vehicles and countless bodies of retreating Iraqi soldiers.
By the time Swofford wrote his book 10 years later, he realized what generations of Marines have already learned: “I will always remain a jarhead, and all the jarheads killing and dying will always be me.” Rated R for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content.
– reviewed by Marci Miller