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Apocalypse whatever
Jarhead gets lost in the desert

Related Links

Jarhead's official Web site

Peter Keough talks to Anthony Swofford about Jarhead.

Jarhead is the Waiting for Godot of war movies. Based on the bestselling 2003 memoir by Anthony Swofford, it’s the story of a 20-year-old Marine sniper (Jake Gyllenhaal), his passage through basic training and his initiation into combat in the first Gulf War. It’s the story of millions of other young Americans, the basis of a literary tradition that takes in The Red Badge of Courage, A Farewell to Arms, and The Naked and the Dead. It’s the premise for every war film ever made. The difference in Jarhead is that nothing happens.

True, 100,000 Iraqis get incinerated, Kuwait is liberated, the oil fields are secured, and the stage is set for the rise of Osama bin Laden. But at least for the grunts in this film and Swofford’s book, the war is as much a spectacle as it is for us at home watching on CNN. (Except that we don’t get the stench, the sand, the rain of oil, or the friendly fire.) For the Marines, it’s a war of attrition on their nerves and patience. A test of their warrior conditioning — not using it, but restraining it. They wait and wait for a consummation that may not come and might not be wished.

What happens when 500,000 young men (and women, too, though none is seen here) sit in the desert for five months deprived of mates, booze, and TV? Sexual pathology, for one. Swofford’s history of dysfunction starts with the primal scene. "I cannot watch," he says in voiceover, as a flashback peeks at his dad, on leave from Vietnam, in a clinch with his mom. "And neither can you." A door discreetly closes on the intimate moment, as well as on other painful episodes that follow.

So goes the beginning of the film, with Mendes employing the wry irony that was the best part of American Beauty. Later, as the tedium builds in the desert, the director gets serious. Swofford receives a Dear John from his girlfriend and Mendes amps up his agony with a Nirvana song, a dream sequence, a Christmas party in which Swofford wears nothing but a pair of Santa caps, and finally a near-homicidal freakout.

Thank goodness the war starts. Or does it? As Swofford’s pal Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) notes, their unit is a plodding anachronism; by the time they get to the front line, the war has moved on to Kuwait City. All they get to do is see the aftermath: miles of charred corpses and vehicles on the Highway of Death; oil wells burning in the night. And on the rare occasion that Swofford gets a chance to practice his deadly craft, squeeze the trigger and behold the pink mist . . .

That’s one of the key themes of the book that’s lost in the movie version. Also lost is the voice. Swofford’s funny, poetic prose ignites the meandering, anticlimactic narrative; Mendes struggles to find his own voice. Why does such a personal story seem like so many other movies? When its most dynamic moment is a shot of Marines cheering at a screening of Apocalypse Now, you know a film is in trouble. Nonetheless, Jarhead as a whole is a better movie than Coppola’s. Apocalypse never found an ending. Jarhead is all ending, and we’re still living it today.

Issue Date: November 4 - 10, 2005
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