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USA 2006
Directed by
Sam Mendes
123 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
4 stars

Jarhead

“Like most good and great Marines, I hated the Corps. I hated being a Marine because more than all of the things in the world I wanted to be—smart, famous, sexy, oversexed, drunk, f***ed, high, alone, famous, smart, known, understood, loved, forgiven, oversexed, drunk, high, smart, sexy—more than all of these, I was a Marine. A jarhead.”
—Anthony Swofford, Jarhead


War is hell, or as Jarhead puts it, “Welcome to the Suck”. And whilst Jarhead is a war movie, it’s unlike most other films of the genre. It describes the horrors of war, but they’re different to the ones we have witnessed cinematically in the past. War films often show the horror of combat, or the horror of an enemy doing evil things or of the “good side” acting just as badly. But few films have focused in on the horror of doing nothing. In this story, the soldiers have to contend with being irrelevant. Aerial bombardments mean the battlefront moves faster than a soldier can march or a personnel carrier can drive. What does a highly trained soldier do when he’s denied his purpose? That seems to be one of the core questions at heart of the film.

Our narrator for this exploration of military life is Tony “Swoff” Swofford, played by Jake Gyllenhall. It’s an intense and engaging role, as he journeys from a raw recruit who kind of regrets his decision to enlist through to a man addicted to the possibility of combat, but driven nearly insane by the pointlessness of sitting around. Along the way he makes a friend of sorts in Troy, played by Peter Sarsgaard, his spotter, when the two are assigned to each other after they are selected to join the elite sniper group of the Marines. Troy is someone who desperately wants to be in the Marines. How much of this is about getting away from a dead-end life and how much is a love of the force is left ambiguous, but he counterbalances Swoff’s detachment with a passion for it all. Both of them become addicted to the possibility of “the pink mist”, the puff of blood and brains from a perfect shot. But when they’re finally sent to Iraq they do nothing but sit around, like everyone else, left with nothing but a daily routine of training, drinking water and the fear that their wives and girlfriends are cheating on them. As Swoff says in the film, the military has a standard procedure for everything except losing your mind.

The film is concerned more with the detail of army life than the thrill of engagement. Not that the soldiers don't long for combat, it's just not there for them. We see a side to the Iraq conflict that didn't make it onto CNN, a war in which soldiers have nothing to do, and find out about what this lack of action does to them. They watch war films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter knowing that for some this is as close as they're likely to get to their battle fantasies. So much of it seems almost deliberately absurd, but since it's based on Swofford's memoirs of his own first-hand experience, it has a legitimacy that in the end makes you feel for these men witnessing the passing of an era, without a front line, supplanted by air power and left with nothing to do.

 

 

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