dir: Sam Mendes
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This is a film about war without an actual war in it. It’s akin to make a porno without having sex in it.

There are movies like that. On cable, Showtime (channel 3), on Friday nights, plays these flicks which I am guessing are American pornos. I don’t actually know for sure, because the films have most of the nudity and all of the sex cut out of them. It begs the question as to why anyone would then want to watch them, considering the main attraction is now absent. It’s not for the scripts and the acting, which are teeth-grindingly bad. You wouldn’t watch a football game on the jumping box, the pictocube, I mean the telly, if they cut all the actual football out of it. And the sex as well.

Jarhead’s point is to give us a window into the experiences of a young marine trained and amped up for war, alongside his equally hyper macho brothers in arms, prior to the first Gulf War. It starts with scenes those of us who routinely watch war films would be familiar with (boot camp, having superior officers hurl abuse at newbies, small acts of rebellion against authority), but doesn’t have the general payoff that you get from the other flicks (trial by fire in wartime conflict, personal cowardice and courage, blowing people’s heads off).

But here most of the characters, especially the main one (the film is based on the autobiographical novel by Anthony Swafford), are eternally frustrated. They get none of the action, catharsis, release that they’ve been promised. Poised to fight, charged up to kill Iraqis by the bushel, the first Iraq war is as much of a gyp for them as it was for a whole host of other people: Americans, Iraqis, Kuwaitis, Eskimos).

They do get to see the destruction the modern war machine is capable of. Ignoring the experience of the soldiers in Iraq currently, the war as represented here was one where infantry, where soldiers themselves are superfluous to the carrying-out of war. The marines spend more time dodging their own artillery and air support than the enemy. In fact, of enemy marines, they only get to see two of them, from a great distance.

This was the war where 24 cable news channels came into their own, with endlessly recycled footage of laser guided bombs destroying targets, in eerie black and white, or radioactive greens. This wasn’t a war for the personal glory of soldiers. It was war at a remove, at a great distance. The marines are not lost in the sense that they don’t know where they are, but they are lost in the desert because they are unnecessary.

All the while they are constantly told of how the evil despot Saddam Hussein has a vast store of chemical and biological weaponry he is just itching to use on the young marines, and he also has the elite Republican Guard: battle-hardened warriors who have been fighting since before the marines were born, ready to pounce.

This is meant to convince the marines of the seriousness of the situation that they’re in, but of course, with the full knowledge of hindsight, we are meant to watch these proceedings and giggle. Or at least it sets the scene for their mindset, but lets us in on the sheer ridiculousness of the situation.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swafford, representing the author’s experiences and frustrations with the Marines and the war in a pretty believable fashion. There is no shortage of movies about the military experience, but few capture or emphasise the feelings of frustration and boredom that many of them must endure.

As well as their boot camp training, which unavoidably follows the tried and true path laid down by the first 45 minutes of Full Metal Jacket, once we get to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, we see the marines kept in that nervy state of perpetual readiness, and the effect it has on them.

Speaking of Full Metal Jacket, all drill sergeants on film worship at the feat of R. L. Ermey, and try to find new ways to exceed his brutal machinegun-like delivery of abuse and cursing, and none have ever come close. Though the guy here does a brief but decent job. For anyone who’s scrupulously avoided films of this nature before, boot camp is all about the dehumanisation of new recruits; breaking them down with exhausting physical activity, bastardisation, arbitrary punishment and a vicious enforcement of absolute obedience and discipline, in order to produce fighting men capable of obeying the toughest orders and carrying out the unthinkable without blinking an ethical or literal eyelid.

It’s no picnic; if it were, the United States Marine Corps would not have the ‘go anywhere and kill anything’ reputation that it has today. But Jarhead at least posits the idea that this process of physical and psychological conditioning isn’t necessarily the best thing for the mental health of young men overflowing with testosterone and adrenalin who don’t have any better outlet for their aggression than masturbation or killing the elusive enemy.

Ably supporting Brokeback Jake are Peter Sarsgaard as his brother in arms Troy, who continues on the good work he’s been doing for the last few years by giving a complex and ‘messy’ portrayal of a Marine who seems more thoughtful than the chaps around him, but is prey to the same whispers of insanity, and Jaime Foxx as his commanding officer. Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert also do well in cameos as senior officers (veering between motivational speakers and tin-pot dictators), so far above the petty concerns of the grunts that it’s comedic in itself.

Foxx, who is a good actor, but who has since disappeared ever-so-slightly up his own arse after winning the Best Actor Oscar for Ray a couple of years ago, puts in an okay performance as Swofford’s unit’s NCO in charge. He also has a quite hilarious scene with Gyllenhaal where the topic of selection for duty is thrown about. When told that he has been selected as a sniper scout, Swofford demures. Foxx’s Staff Sergeant Sykes, incredulous, offers Swofford the post of bugler for the unit, in jest, which Swofford heartily agrees to.

It makes for a pretty funny following scene. The film has a fair amount of humour, and a fair amount of voiceover work as well, but it doesn’t become too intrusive, and doesn’t outstay its welcome, like, say, The Thin Red Line. It is well shot, and especially towards the end of the flick, where scenes like the Highway of Death and the burning oil fields are recreated, looks amazing.

Other touches grounding the flick include lengthy time allotted to the common fear / fate of the marines, and that is the dreaded Dear John letter from home. The grunts, including Swofford, spend a lot of time worrying about the fidelity of their wives or girlfriends, or favourite mistresses, and even devote a wall to sticking up the photos of the loved and lost. The Wall of Shame also includes little notes, telling the viewer what the marine’s partner did, who they cheated with, who they left them for.

The clear signal is that the wives and girlfriends of marines cannot last more than a few days away from their men without going slut crazy and fucking the first guy that comes along. Although it works in the context of the film, it seems bizarre that within only a few weeks in Iraq, so many of the men would have been abandoned by their partners so hastily. Maybe they were just waiting for the right moment.

In one particular case, since the guys sit around watching war films all the time, a marine is overjoyed to have received his videotape copy of The Deer Hunter, and plays it for the guys in the common room. A few minutes into the intro, it appears that his wife has videotaped herself having sex with her neighbour as revenge against her husband, who doesn’t seem to enjoy this public humiliation.

This fear of cockblocking is a belaboured theme, and not surprising, considering the overamped hypermacho atmosphere in which they swim. It all adds to the somewhat surreal nature of the production. The absurdity of military life is continuously juxtaposed with the strange behaviour of the various guys, some stranger than others.

And the biggest disappointment for them, and hopefully not us, is that it doesn’t lead to anything. No catharsis justifies everything that they went through. No-one kills or dies heroically saving puppies and orphans. It was all for nought.

For a plotless, meandering film, it does all right, and it sits well beside both Jacket and Three Kings. As a broader comment on the contemporary US military, and on war in general, it follows the long line of tradition that any war film that’s not blatant propaganda is ultimately an anti-war film.

As if the world needs more cheerleaders for war anyway.

7 times this film does have the decency to give a reach-around out of 10

“That's Vietnam music... can't we get our own music?” - Jarhead