Genre: Biography, Drama, War
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriters: William Broyles Jr.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black
Countless anti-war films — assuming, as the old saw goes, that it’s possible to make an anti-war film without inadvertently turning it into a pro-war film via exciting battle action — have argued that war is pointless while saluting the men who fight and die in it. Jarhead takes a different position: it is not that war is pointless, but that being a soldier is pointless. War is not dehumanizing because it turns people into killing machines; it’s dehumanizing because it turns people into puny, insignificant cogs in one ruthless, mechanical, enormous killing machine. The word “jarhead,” we are told, is slang for a marine — an “empty vessel.” In an age where “support our troops” bumper stickers are all but mandatory, that’s a tough message to swallow.
The notion is that modern warfare makes the military heroes of old into mere support staff. The protagonists in Jarhead, marines sent to “kick Saddam’s ass” in the Gulf War train to be expert snipers, but when they finally get sent on a mission — and most of the audience perks up, thinking they are at last about to see the kind of war movie they are accustomed to — it’s ripped out of their hands in a heartbreaking scene. Soldiers desperate for a taste of battle are reduced to playing war with charred corpses. It’s not that they don’t get to kill, it’s that they don’t get to do anything at all.
Never one for subtlety, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) hits every note of this powerful message with tireless energy. Where both of his previous films maintained a consistent, elevated tone, this one paints a cynical facade and disrupts it with earnest, intense outbursts of emotion. Elements that meet with a half-smile and a nod the first time around (“This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine”) have a pesky tendency of coming back in powerful ways. Characters whom we thought of as entry points into the film change suddenly, and in violent ways. I expected detached, exacting precision from Mendes, but Jarhead is as volatile as its characters.
For all that it’s a portrait of meaninglessness and despair in the armed forces, the film doesn’t neglect to remind us that there are people who thrive in this environment. I absolutely believed that Staff Sgt. Siek (Jamie Foxx) loves his job. He may never get a commission, but when, in the film’s closing montage, we see him somewhere in the Middle East shouting instructions to a group of marines, he seemed genuinely happy; certainly more so than any of the other people we followed over the preceding two hours.
Our humble narrator through all of this is Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is bright, and funny, and does his best to fight back against “the suck,” as they call it, even as he gets sucked into it. He is by no means a misfit in the corps, but he never succumbs to its worst influences, and in an affecting late-film scene he stares into the abyss and asserts his humanity. It’s not as cheesy as it sounds. You’ll see what I mean — or maybe you won’t.
The nominal crux of Jarhead is “once a marine, always a marine;” once a man takes up his rifle, we are told, he never puts it down. But what does that mean? If being a marine means nothing, then where does that leave us? Perhaps the answer is even more chilling than the notion that a soldier never lays down his rifle. Once a marine always a marine; always a jarhead; always an empty vessel.