There have been plenty of War movies about Vietnam over the years, as had been the case with the World Wars all those decades earlier, but there are few movies that focus on the more recent Gulf Wars. Sure, movies and TV series' (from Three Kings to X-Files) have had Gulf-related topics, whether Gulf War Syndrome, or various acts committed during the conflict as a part of their story, but there have been no big movies about the war itself. Perhaps this was because the conflict was (is) so fresh, or because it was so (relatively) one-sided that it would be like watching a movie about Liverpool playing Bracknell at a Football match. In spite of all this, Sam Mendes - the man behind American Beauty - has decided to provide us with Jarhead, a tale about the harried soldiers in the Gulf.
Swofford has just made one of the worst decisions of his life. Following on in his Vietnam Vet' father's footsteps, he has just joined the Marines. Before long he is recruited into the Marine Scout Snipers and his true training begins in a very gruelling, painful fashion. Commanded by a sarcastic but severe Staff Sergeant, his unit spend hours, days, weeks and months honing themselves into killing machines. They are so psychotically eager to get their first kill that they cheer at the very thought of kicking Saddam Hussein's ass, exploding in raucous applause as napalm is reigned down on the Vietnamese in Apocalypse Now.
The day comes when they are finally sent into battle, being amongst the first to set foot in the sand during the 1991 Gulf War. They think they're only going for a couple of weeks, but pretty soon their stay becomes measurable more in terms of months and, with no sign whatsoever of any 'action', boredom soon sets in. Sure they've been brainwashed into believing that they are 'protecting the precious oil fields from being raped and pillaged by the barbaric Iraqis' but after nearly half a year of nothingness, they soon begin to see and hear things that make them question their very presence out there in the desert.
Jarhead is a mixed-bag of Gulf War mayhem. American Beauty's Director Sam Mendes has done a good job in presenting a visually opulent, troubling look at this under-studied conflict. It has his trademark ironic flair, with plenty of comically dramatic moments, like an American Football game in full chemical warfare gear and a hilarious bugle scene, but at the heart of it there is quite a pointed look at the War. The soldiers are painted as gung-ho zombies, simply desperate to pull their trigger on a real human, even though all they know is paper targets. They have very real emotions, being worried about the fidelity of their loved ones back home, worried about their own sanity. You do feel sorry for these wasted souls - particularly as snipers were relatively pointless out there in the desert battle - and follow them, captivated, as their story unfolds.
The trouble is, this is no harrowing Vietnam that these soldiers went through. Most of these soldiers don't ever really see any conflict, they just see sand and sun and burning oil fields, the closest they come to battle being the blue-on-blue A10 bombing (that occurred in real life) which left plenty of U.S. soldiers dead at the hands of other U.S. soldiers. Even though losing half a year of your life, severing connections you're your loved ones and losing some of your direction and purpose is no small thing, compared to what we have seen before in movies like Platoon and even Black Hawk Down, it seems like they got off fairly lightly. Why was this anticlimactic approach so much of an issue to me as a viewer? Well, mainly because of the opening statement that is made: “A man goes to war...” It's a poignant, thought-provoking phrase, but it is totally at odds with the story that this movie is trying to portray. It seems more like a Vietnam adage than a Gulf War motto and certainly bares no relevance to any of the drama that we see in this movie.
Performance-wise, everybody is on top form. Donnie Darko's Jake Gyllenhaal takes the lead as Swoff, who we follow through the entire tour in the Gulf. He is at his finest, really putting a great deal of energy and desperation into his central role. Amongst the other members of the unit we get Peter Sarsgaard as Swoff's friend, a slightly more philosophical soldier than the rest and American Gothic's Lucas Black as one of his more gung-ho colleagues. Jamie Foxx is also great as their Staff Sergeant, all cool shades and wisecracks. He gets some of the best scenes in the movie. Bourne Identity's Chris Cooper plays his standard grizzly barking-orders type as the Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the whole platoon and even 24's President, Dennis Haysbert, gets a brief cameo in a very different role indeed from his usual upstanding self.
All in all, Jarhead is well-shot, with some truly memorable sequences, some poignant statements about the true losses suffered in War and plenty of blame laid on the 'administration' for pointlessly sending these young boys out to the detriment of their own existences. Unfortunately, it seems a little misguided in its approach to painting just how much these soldiers suffered, with what should have been a haunting opening (and closing) phrase, ending up grating and making you wonder what the fuss is about. Jarhead is a solid, watchable movie, but its anticlimactic nature is likely to leave you feeling a little disappointed.