Jarhead (2005): Sam Mendes Third (Most Problematic) Film, Starring Jake Gyllenhaal

Sam Mendes’ third film, “Jarhead,” a subjective, almost surreal account of the 1991 Gulf War, is his most problematic work to date.  It suffers from narrative flaws that are inherent in the source material (not clear what the movie is about) and also derive from the peculiar nature of this particular war.

Attempting to be a revisionist, “Jarhead” aims to belong to the category of personal movies about Vietnam by great directors.  Images of these movies, which have become an integral part of American pop culture, are shown in the text itself, making the gap between intent and effect all the more apparent.

In the summer of 1990, Anthony Swofford, a 20-year-old, third-generation enlistee, was sent to the deserts of Saudi Arabia to fight in the first Gulf War. In 2003, Swofford’s memoir of that time became the best-seller “Jarhead,” hailed as a bracing and one of the best books ever written about military life. The book depicted rituals of passage familiar to millions of young men who have gone to war but have not been revealed with such honesty and humor before.

Following the book’s structure, Mendes depicts the war through the prism of one specific person, Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) nicknamed Swoff, who went to war to discover who he was. Like the book, the film boasts a variegated tone, a mixture of machismo, comedy, surrealism, and wry observation.

The challenge faced by Mendes was twofold. First, to be faithful to a tough, personal book that doesn’t lend itself easily to big-screen adaptation. Second, to make an emotionally and visually compelling film that would capture the distinct nature of the Gulf War. The war was uniquely apparatus-driven (none of which was provided to the movie by a cooperating military), and despite the perception that it had been “covered” by the media, it was a war in which few were familiar with the actual details of what occurred on the ground. Unlike Vietnam, the Gulf War failed to impart strong imagery and it didn’t have the immediately recognizable iconography of helicopters and innocent Vietnamese civilian running for their lives.

The main problems of “Jarhead” derive from these challenges. The film is too episodic and it doesn’t have the kind of conventional narrative that Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” had. In many ways, “Jarhead” is the opposite war film from “Platoon,” which was narrowly focused, tautly directed, and action-oriented. Since there was not much combat in the Gulf War, Mendes’ nearly impossible task is how to give shape to an experience that was shapeless and frustratingly devoid of real action.

“Jarhead” pays tribute to one military unit, the Marine snipers, by showing its esprit de corps and collective nature, while not neglecting the idiosyncratic personalities of its members. In this respect, the movie is successful, showing that every Marine, despite wearing the same uniform and going through the same ordeal, has a totally different experience, based on his background and personal motivation to go to war.

Though the movie unfolds as a journey of personal discovery of one Marine, Swoff, the whole notion of heroism is presented in a cynically ironic, deconstructive way that makes us reevaluate the screen heroes embodied by John Wayne in his combat WWII movies, Sylvester Stallone in his right-wing “Rambo” actioners, Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now,” and Charlie Sheen and his two sergeants (or surrogate fathers, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe) in “Platoon.” The fact that Gyllenhaal’s Swoff cannot be compared to any of these heroes speaks well for “Jarhead” as a new type of war movie.

A third-generation enlistee, Swoff joins the Marines with half-formed visions of valor, conditioned by news propaganda and war movies. As much as possible, the story sticks to his personal, and thus partial and distorted view of the war. The subjectivity of Swoff’s experience is conveyed through voice-over narration that begins and ends the film in a symmetrical way, and periodically both punctuates and punctures the yarn.

Through Swoff, we get to meet the other members, such as Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), his partner in the elite unit of Marine scout/snipers, whose unflappable exterior conceals a mercurial and stormy nature. Ominous signs and revelations along the way signal the odyssey that Troy would take and the tragic fate he’d meet.

Swoff and Troy are surrounded by half a dozen soldiers, each getting their due screen time with at least one interesting or defining episode. The two most conventional characters, by which I mean roles familiar from numerous war movies, are Lieutenant Colonel Kazinski (Chris Cooper), the commander who itches to unleash his killing machine on an overmatched enemy, and Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Fox), a lifer who commands the Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA) Platoon with a bulldog tenacity and unwavering sense of nationalism. In a number of speeches, Sykes conveys vividly the idea that there’s nothing more exciting for him to do in civilian life, suggesting that he would rather tempt death in war that go through the boredom of mundane working-class life.

All the Marines have the ideas of immature boys of what a war, any war, is. The movie is filled with moments in which they act out what they think the war might be, or how they should be when it starts, or what they might do and say. But the reality is unlike anything they had ever expected.

Going beyond the realm of war, Mendes offers commentary on the peculiar coverage of the Gulf War by the news media. And while we have seen before soldiers indoctrinated for “media” interviews–what to say and not to say–the whole issue of war coverage comes under different scrutiny here.

What most Americans remember about the Gulf War are rather clean, often repeated images of bombs hitting their targets, but bereft of any sense of human life. The media coverage was distorted in two significant ways. It never showed images of real battles, and what it showed was from the air. Deviating from this pattern, Mendes is consistent in showing the war as perceived from the ground.

There are tensions and incongruities between these two perspectives–call it the aerial and the ground. Swoff and his mates are ignorant of what was going on. Swoff’s experience in the desert takes what’s considered “normal” about war and turns it on its head.

Context is crucial: As often happens with historical events, one needs some distance to fully understand them. The first Gulf War is certainly a different event now from what it appeared to be fifteen years ago. For many at the time, it seemed to be almost a non-war. Which may explain why it took about a decade before candid memoirs about that war were written.

Rather than focus on factual accounts and military details, Mendes goes for the feelings and impressions, the subjective version of the events, to create a different account of the Gulf War. The combination of the subject matter, the setting, and the testosterone results in an intense experience for both the soldiers on screen and viewers off screen.

“Jarhead” sags in the middle sections and will be criticized for being disjointed, rather than intentionally fractured. What gives the film unity and elevates it artistically is its structure and style. The film is divided into four parts, each beginning with a title card that informs the audience about the time frame (for example, 155 days into the war) and the number of Americans in the desert; at one point, there were over half a million soldiers.

The voice-over narration, accompanied by subjective points-of-view, fulfills a number of functions. It offers continuity by linking disparate episodes, and it provides poignant commentary on the proceedings in a mode that recalls Martin Sheen’s voice-over in “Apocalypse Now.”

Swoff is an insider who’s also an outsider. He’s an observer and a team player, an integral part of the platoon while simultaneously feeling apart from it. Yet some of the film’s most exhilarating scenes are group rituals, such as watching a porno tape sent by one of the Marines as “revenge,” or a Christmas celebration that goes awry out of negligence, or collective punishments as a result of misconduct by an individual member.

The story builds toward a climax, which is actually an anti-climax. Eager to see some action, Swoff and his comrades finally get an assignment to kill a top Iraqi officer in a tower. Preparations are made, and Swoff’s finger is on the trigger, when the action is called off at the very last minute, when the mission is reassigned to the Air Force.

The whole film could be seen as a masturbatory experience of soldiers eager to shoot, but never get to use their guns. The scene at the end, a tension-release orgy of fire, with the Marines firing their guns in the air, captures sardonically the film’s central idea of Iraq as a war like no other war, a short war with no climax or ending.

You don’t have to be a Freudian psychologist to get the parallels Mendes draws between sexual and violent acts. The four-letter words in the dialogue, the numerous scenes depicting (or referring to) masturbation, the dissatisfying nature of such acts are all a camouflage for the wish to use guns in action as a justification for the long, boring days spent waiting for something to happen, and also the need to achieve a climax and the expected relaxation that follows such climax.

Since location shooting in the original setting was not an option, “Jarhead” was filmed in the California desert of Glamis. One of the movie’s ironies is that the shoot lasted five month, which is exactly the length of time the soldiers in Swoff’s unit were in the desert together.

Assisted by ace lenser Roger Deakins, Mendes conveys the chaos of combat and also the intimacy of shared missions and misgivings among an ad hoc fraternity of fighting men. The use of handheld camera allows for more fluidity and improvisation. In sharp contrast the style of his first film, “American Beauty,” in which he used a series of Magritte-like images and compositions, here, Mendes opts for a more flexible, hectic style, deliberately avoiding master shots and crane shots. Staying as closely as possible to Swoff, many scenes begin by entering the action with him, showing subjectively what he sees, rather than through a more objective, detached, and uninflected gaze. All of which reinforce the idea of a story told at ground level from one soldier’s POV.

This is a breakthrough year for Jake Gyllenhaal, who appears in three high-profile films: “Proof,” as Gwyneth Paltrow’s boyfriend and math student; the epic Western “Brokeback Mountain,” as a gay cowboy; and “Jarhead.” Of the three, he’s the most impressive in “Jarhead,” which may turn him into a major movie star. Gyllenhaal not only plays the lead, appearing in almost every scene, he also gets the star treatment that displays to an advantage his handsome looks and acting skills.