The war movie is a genre that many have tried to perfect. It is however also a very difficult genre to get right. And so out of the hundreds of war movies made in the last hundred years, only a handful or so stand out above the rest as absolute classics. Jarhead, unfortunately, does not sit amongst such movies as Apocalypse Now or the Deer Hunter (both of which are watched by Swoff and co. in the movie (well we at least see the Deer Hunter’s opening credits)). It is however much better than most war movie output seen over the last few decades or so. That is thanks to a number of factors.
First is the men behind the scenes. Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) directs, with Roger Deakins as cinematographer, and these two work incredibly well together, to create a disturbing but at times beautiful war zone. The great vastness and potential unseen dangers of the desert are so unnerving that Swoff’s slow mental breakdown works brilliantly.
Of course the actors are also magnificent, inhabiting the world Mendes and Deakins create, and adding the raw masculine energy, and the hidden brokenness of the men inside the camouflage. Jake Gyllenhaal leads the way as Anthony “Swoff” Swofford, on whose memoir the film is based. It is the late 1980’s and he enlists as a Marine shortly before the Gulf War. In boot camp he learns from Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) to become a sniper along with his spotter Alan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard). They are then shipped out to the Arabian Peninsula where they have to cope with the gruelling conditions.
Swoff, the new kid, undergoes the usual transformation from the unknowing innocent to military hard-head. Sykes is a dictator-esque commander; and Troy the somewhat cocky, intelligent leader of his group. Thankfully Jarhead doesn’t stick to these original cliches though, allowing each character to develop and become something much more recognisable as human beings. They all struggle to cope with their new environment, whether it’s their first time at war, or they are veterans. Paranoia and boredom and jealousy and envy and anger all rise amongst the group. We see the harsh reality of war but in a new way. Because this story isn’t about the crash bang explosions of war, but about the effects on the people involved. It borrows more from The Deer Hunter than any other war film in that way.
As Swoff says towards the end, his involvement in the war only lasts four days. This film is about the build up and the waiting. The fear that grows out of that, and the cabin fever. We get access into the minds of the men who sign up for this, and we see the effects it can have on a human being.
Where the movie perhaps trips up is at the very end when the war is over and done with (and no I’m not talking about the travesty that is the dreadful wigs). It all works nicely to show how war never leaves those who have served, but there is a single scene that isn’t as affecting as perhaps Mendes had hoped for. That however is a minor gripe.
Jarhead is an admirable attempt, not least because for the most part it takes the “war” out of the “war movie” and instead leaves the audience for two hours waiting with the soldiers on the sidelines. It’s fun and at times hilarious, but also manages to find that emotional aspect without it feeling heavy handed. A good, if not amazing, modern war film.