Film

THE LOOKING-GLASS WAR

Jarhead tracks America's first clumsy steps into the quicksand of Iraq

BRIAN D. JOHNSON November 7 2005
Film

THE LOOKING-GLASS WAR

Jarhead tracks America's first clumsy steps into the quicksand of Iraq

BRIAN D. JOHNSON November 7 2005

THE LOOKING-GLASS WAR

Film

Jarhead tracks America's first clumsy steps into the quicksand of Iraq

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

IT’S THE SPRING of 1991 in the Kuwaiti desert, and it’s raining oil. The night is lit up by monstrous geysers of flame from wells set ablaze by Saddam Hussein’s retreating troops. On the blackened sand, an American Marine, his face drenched in oil, looks up as a U.S. helicopter passes overhead blaring the Doors’ Break On Through (To the Other Side) from loudspeakers. “That’s Vietnam music!” he screams. “Can’t we get our own f—in’ music?” That’s one of the many dark comic moments in Jarhead, a movie about a war that fails to behave the way wars are supposed to. The Vietnam adventure—or at least movies

about it—has burned a mythic soundtrack onto our image of combat. We expect war to unfold as a kind of cinematic rock opera.

An early scene in Jarhead, before the Marines ship out to the Persian Gulf War, shows them packed into a hall watching Apocalypse Now. Like a happy congregation at a cult viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, they sing along to Ride of the Valkyries as the armada of helicopters napalms a Vietnamese village. The irony is perverse— that an anti-war epic about Vietnam should serve to rally the troops for a new war. And it seems unlikely such a scene ever took place. It’s not mentioned in the non-fiction book on which Jarhead is quite faithfully based— Anthony Swofford’s memoir of being shipped to the Gulf as a Marine sniper at age 20.

But bear in mind that the film was made by a Brit with a flair for the theatrical, American Beauty director Sam Mendes. And his theatre of war is heavily armed with cinematic references. A soldier pops in a video of The Deer Hunter that he’s received from home, then is horrified to see it’s been taped over with footage of his wife having sex with a neighbour. There’s a desert encounter with camel herders that’s right out of Lawrence of Arabia. And when it’s raining oil, a soldier conveniently quotes James Dean in Giant.

Jarhead is a war movie that’s acutely conscious of its own significance. Although it deals with a brisk, triumphant invasion that occurred 15 years ago, it’s a tale of hubris, about a pyrrhic victory that drew America into the quicksand of its current Iraq nightmare. To that extent, as a movie protesting a war that’s still being fought, it feels unprecedented. Usually, Hollywood likes to wait for the dust to settle. But Jarhead is a

far cry from a Pentagon co-production. Mendes made it without any co-operation from the U.S. military—apparently you can privately rent F-15 fighter jets.

In his narration, Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) declares: “Every war is different. Every war is the same.” That could also be said of war movies. Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, The Thin Red Line, Black Hawk Down... ever since Vietnam, serious combat films have had to navigate the same moral minefield—delivering a violent spectacle of brothers in arms while brooding on the insanity of being at war in the first place. Every war movie is now about characters stuck someplace they don’t belong, asking: why am I here? In Jarhead, that begins right from boot camp, when the righteous drill sergeant (Pay’s Jamie Foxx)

finds Swofford, the sensitive Marine, sitting on the john reading Camus’ existentialist classic, The Stranger.

Jarhead is about the frustration of waiting for a war that won’t start. This war is not hell; it’s purgatory, the torture of unconsummated foreplay. Itching to kick some Iraqi ass, the Marines spend five months waiting in the desert heat. They play football in full combat gear and gas masks for a TV photo op. They drink gallons of water. They masturbate. They wager on scorpion fights. They struggle with malfunctioning gear. Nerves fray as wives and girlfriends betray them back home. The shooting doesn’t start until two-thirds into the film, and then the Marines are hit by friendly fire from U.S. jets. Disenfranchised by the air war, they are left to roam the aftermath, a Pompeii vista of bombed vehicles and charred bodies.

With high-calibre performances from Gyllenhaal, Foxx and Peter Sarsgaard (as a fellow Marine), Jarhead unfolds as powerful character drama. But it’s also a protest movie on an urgent mission. As its hero concludes, in case anyone missed the point, “We are still in the desert.” 171