In one of the many startling and morally jagged moments that propel Jarhead, a Marine squad readies for combat by watching the ”Ride of the Valkyries” attack sequence from Apocalypse Now. As the choppers lay waste to a Vietnamese village, the Marines erupt in cheers, imitating the soldiers on screen — the tapping of a rifle magazine on a helmet, say — as if joshing their way through The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Anthony Swofford, in his 2003 Gulf War memoir, explains that he and his fellow Marines used Apocalypse Now and the other Vietnam films as a kind of violent pornography, pumping themselves up for the consummation they thought — or hoped — war would be. These Marines were hungry to kill, to ”get some.” Yet for any civilian who has watched that helicopter raid, it’s a shock to encounter young soldiers getting off on the thrill and dismissing the horror. ”It doesn’t matter how many Mr. and Mrs. Johnsons are antiwar,” writes Swofford. ”The actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not.”
Jarhead, a high-potency adaptation of Swofford’s book that is nevertheless a tricky movie to warm up to, presents American soldiers confronting globalized warfare as a highly controlled yet unstable experience, a mosh pit of testosterone in search of an outlet. Shipped off, in the summer of 1990, to join Operation Desert Shield, Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), a 20-year-old combat virgin, and his fellow Marines are dispatched to Iraq to ready themselves for a face-off with Saddam Hussein’s troops, who are rumored to be using poison gas. As the Marines count down the days of waiting, which number in the dozens, then the hundreds, they’re subjected to training exercises like playing football in gas masks in the broiling desert, an action that might have been designed to stoke their fear. Then the war starts, but the enemy is faceless to the point of abstraction: far-off men in the sand, or oil derricks, detonated by Saddam, burning against the night sky like orange tornado plumes. The Marines are turned into bystanders in their own war.
Swofford, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in a remarkable performance of wildly unstable machismo, is part of an elite scout/ sniper division — highly skilled military assassins with little or no battle experience. They’re the children of frat houses, hipster war films, and high technology, and as a vision of what’s flowing through their minds, bodies, and souls, Jarhead, written by William Broyles Jr. and directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), is an eye-opening experience. Entering his barracks, Swofford, whose bristle-skulled, ”jarhead” look makes a bizarre counterpoint to his big, babyish eyes, gets pounded on by the other Marines, who duct-tape his arms to the bed and terrorize him with a mock?branding iron. Is this ritual hazing an angry jock assault on homoeroticism, or a skewed expression of it? Maybe both. In past war films, even the psychedelic spectacles of Nam, a girl back home was a comfort, but Jarhead presents us with strutting bruiser kings for whom wives and girlfriends are a matter of squirmy anxiety — an ongoing reminder of the possibilities of adultery and betrayal. One man has to watch the entire platoon sit through his wife’s videotaped infidelity. He must have done something to deserve it, but it’s still a ”love letter” from hell.
Watching Jarhead, these unvarnished snapshots of what can really happen among U.S. combat troops all but slap you with their observational force. Jamie Foxx, as an officer who loves the military more than life, deploys his sense of humor like a weapon; he gives even throwaway lines a jaunty, lethal sting. Yet there’s a central oddity to the movie: The moments add up journalistically, alerting you to things you’ve never seen in a war film before, but they’re strung together in such a calculatedly ”artless,” objective fashion that we remain fascinated but detached. It would be easy to say that Jarhead fails as a story, except that Mendes, refusing to coerce the details of Swofford’s experience into arcs and resolutions (let alone the facile American-heroes-get-the-gold uplift of something like Three Kings), forges, perhaps, a new kind of drama: a portrait of war stripped of all glamour and design. His most obvious influence was Full Metal Jacket, but that movie had Kubrick’s simmering grand sweep. Jarhead is an existential docudrama: cool and funny, vivid and remote at the same time.
Sitting in the desert, Swofford and his comrades are waiting for combat, and bored, but their weary anticipation is also a mask for fear. Unlike the soldiers who lived the insanity of Vietnam, they know, more or less, why they’re in the Gulf: to defend the region’s oil reserves, and therefore a tangle of corporate and government interests. But that hardly eases their impotence. Jarhead isn’t overtly political, yet by evoking the almost surreal futility of men whose lust for victory through action is dashed, at every turn, by the tactics, terrain, and morality of the war they’re in, it sets up a powerfully resonant echo of the one we’re in today.