November 9, 2005

Welcome to the Suck

Today’s Movie Review – Jarhead

Matt Watson – 3 1/2 Baseballs

In times of peril and war, it’s occasionally useful to look back upon our past and try and learn something from the events that unfolded there. It might not provide all the answers but as the saying goes you’re bound to repeat your mistakes if you don’t learn from them.

Jarhead is the autobiographical story of marine lance corporal Anthony Swofford. We’re introduced to Swofford, played with grit and restrained emotion by Jake Gyllenhaal when his drill instructor starts mashing his head into a blackboard. As Swofford’s fellow marine Troy, played by Peter Sarsgaard offers again and again, “Welcome to the Suck”. From here the movie follows “Swoff” and his compatriots through their training in scout and sniper tactics and their eventual deployment to the gulf during Operation Desert Shield. Sheparding them through their ordeal is Jaime Foxx as Staff Sergeant Sykes. Foxx brings a humanity to the stereotypical superior officer and he provides one of the movies best performances.

To augment his story director Sam Mendes provides visually stunning backdrops. From the shear vastness of the desert to the towering infernos of the burning Kuwaiti oil wells the audience is continually overwhelmed. His films always carry themselves with a stylized look and feel that adds as much to the film as any of the performances. The scenes in the desert are particularly engrossing. Those scenes combined with the excellent sound editing make Jarhead a must for the big screen.

Few war movies examine war and military service for what they really are; an exercise in hurry up and wait. Mendes offers us a bleak look at the nature of 21st century warfare that does a very good job of imparting the sense of frustration that threatens to devour the marines as they wait and wait for their chance to do the thing they’ve been training for, kill the enemy. Their sheer boredom is palpable. That combined with the crushing loneliness of leaving wives and girlfriends behind can be a hellish recipe for disaster. As “Swoff” explains “For most problems the marine is issued a solution. If ill, go to sickbay. If wounded, call corpsman. If dead, report to graves registration. If losing his mind, however, no standard solution exists”. It’s only through the tough love leadership provided by Staff Sergeant Sykes and their reliance on each other that these marines manage not to become casualties before the war even starts.

When the war does finally come for our marines it’s a relief to both them and the audience. They’re finally going to see action, to get to use their training, to fight for themselves and their country. Like all wars not everything goes as planned. In one very poignant scene Swofford and Troy wait with baited breath to assassinate an Iraqi officer just as they practiced a thousand times but even that threatens to undo them.

You can’t watch this movie without examining Vietnam as the movie itself forces such comparisons again and again. Vietnam was the war that everyone wanted to forget. The Gulf war was the war that everyone wanted to remember. We swooped into Iraq, laid waste to the enemy, and threw parades for the victors when they returned. The question never asked is what price did we pay for that victory? Was it worth our soldiers’ youth and innocence? How can we profess to care so much about our values when we leave them broken and shattered during times of war? These are questions not easily answered, not in Vietnam, not in the Gulf War and certainly not now. The only truth this film offers is indisputable. War is hell, always has been, always will be.


Borders said...
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Borders said...

Wow, extremely well written review Watson!

My take on the movie: I enjoyed it. The cinematography was spectacular! The sweltering heat and dryness of the desert was so well captured, I almost felt the need to search for water. And scenes of burning oil wells at night, and raining oil truly added to the film's quality. The cast turned in a very convincing performance, especially Foxx. I did feel that the ending was pretty anticlimactic, which I believe was totally intended by the script and directing. The story that was being told was itself anticlimactic, so the picture held true to the tale. Nonetheless, it did leave me wanting a little more than I got from the movie. That is probably the only thing holding it back from being a great movie, in my eyes, because it had everything else.

Jarhead is worth watching, if for the sound and stunning visuals alone. Just remember to look elsewhere for "Hollywood Endings", and enjoy the ride.

Nate said...

The longer I reflect on this movie, the less I like it. The transition from novel to screen gutted the emotional core of the story, Anthony Swofford's personal, internal reactions the many and varied insanities that make up military life.

As a result the film's observation of Swofford and his mates is too detached, almost clinical, and doesn't allow for any emotional investment in their development or ultimate fates.

Troy is a perfect example, a deeply conflicted, potentially fascinating study of a particular type of modern military man, rendered shallow and cliched on film, despite Peter Sarsgaard's best efforts.

Watson said...

Not having read the book, I can't speak to how the emotional story translated from page to screen, but I can address the distance attached to the characters. I think Sam Mendes actually tries to distance his characters from his audience. If you get too emotionally involved with the story it's hard to step back and take an objective view of what's happening. If the audience gets caught up in the internal sufferings of Troy and Swofford you miss the opportunity to weigh all of the soldiers pain and suffering against the necessity of sending young men off to war. I think that comparison is what the movie is striving for. If Mendes wanted you to identify more with the characters he would have made them more likable instead of making them more human.