Saturday, November 19, 2005

Jarhead (2005)

Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Anthony Swofford, William Broyles Jr.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhall, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black, and Chris Cooper
Synopsis: A young Marine (Gyllenhall) in the Gulf War is frustrated at the fact that though he's on the front line, he never gets to fight.

I'm not, as you might have guessed, a Marine. I can neither verify nor deny the accuracy of the information put forth by Mendes in his harrowing documentary-style war-free war flick based on Swofford's Jarhead. I have no intentions of talking knowledgeably about the nature of war, of the killing of innocent citizens, or the homoerotic behavior of thousands of men trapped in the desert with nothing to do. If you scroll around online for a minute, you'll get varying opinions on the realism of Jarhead from military personnel, spanning a range from "stunningly exact" to "absurd," which leaves me in the lurch if I have any intention of congratulating Jarhead on its accuracy - or, conversely, debunking its falseness. And if there's anything that ticks a military man off, it's the false camraderie that comes from faking military knowledge when "we" went to war.

I didn't go to war. I don't know what it looks like to walk through burning oil fields. And I don't want to pretend I do. So I'm going to take this carefully.

Maybe you find this introduction completely unnecessary. "Show some nuts and write the review, kid," you say. But:
a) If I'm going to make a perhaps erroneous statement: "Jarhead is full of unconvincing, war-movie hokum that merely creates an unfair mythology to an already overly-mystified military branch" (and I am), I don't want to have any ex-Marine come and break a bottle over my head for any inaccuracies I might make. After all, Swofford was a Marine. Broyles was a Marine. What do I know?
b) Mendes works as a commercial director for RSA Films, a joint company of Scott Free, whose building conjoins this one. You've seen his work, I'm sure: the Ebay commercials that suddenly erupt into song-and-dance routines, or those Allstate commercials where Dennis Haybert tells you how Allstate will still be there, providing car insurance, even when aliens come and do awful things to your children, as the camera slowly pulls up to his face. I'm just afraid that if I rag on the flick too much, one thing might lead to another, some phone calls will get made, and Ridley'll come down here and break the bottle of Glen Elgin single malt I just delivered to his office over my head (am I a name-dropper? Yes I am)

I'll list out my complaints in an orderly fashion, so that if Mendes has a problem with anything, he can drop in* and correct the error of my ways.

Counting down from least ridiculous, the Top Five Unrealistic Metaphors:
5. At the end of official hostilities, yelling "we won't need this anymore," the soldiers and officers burn their uniforms and fire several clips from their automatic whatevers into the air. I'm sure none of them realized that they might have to stay in the Middle East a touch longer, though in Mendes' version, they seem to fly home the next day.
4. After spending several months together in a desert with nothing to do, I imagine a good deal of homoerotic banter goes on between the Marines. But simulating acts of fellatio in the middle of the desert for the TV cameras, regardless of its documentation in Swofford's narrative, is just ham-handed story-telling. And frankly, I don't buy it.
3. When Gyllenhall and Sarsgaard, a crack sniper team, are about to take a shot, a commanding officer (Dennis Haybert, again) comes in and overrules, making them move out for an airstrike. In frustration, Sarsgaard attacks Haybert and takes out his aggression on him. No one makes a big deal out of this. No discipline action is taken
2. In an early scene, Swofford's commander (Jamie Foxx) accidently kills one of his own men in training when the inexperienced soldier panics and stands up into the live fire Foxx is shooting over his head. Foxx stays in command of the unit. No discipline action is taken.
1. And, finally, the ultimate nonsensical piece of metaphorical tom-foolery ever foisted on a war movie: As Gyllenhall wanders through Kuwait's burning oil fields (like the burning of his own unrequited passion for war), a riderless Arabian horse (as lost as the war's own purpose), covered in oil (the currency of the war), appears from the darkness (like the bleakness of war) and comes and nuzzles Gyllenhall (like the affection he lacks from being away from his girlfriend because of the war), who rubs its neck and talks to it for a moment (like he can't talk to anyone because he's alone on a battlefield because of the war) before it disappears across the sands (like the sands of... um... war. I was doing great until then).

But let's be fair. For each moment of heartbreaking lunacy, there are two of breathtaking imagery. Mendes (American Beauty) appreciates the small things, and it's the tinier moments that land like grenades in the minds of viewers (that's a war metaphor. I can do it, too). When Gyllenhall tries and fails to masturbate to a picture of his possibly unfaithful girlfriend, it's a heart-in-throat sort of emotion that grips the viewer - in the hands of any other director, it would drive us from the character; here we just feel the pain. Kudos for truly unique direction.

Plus, in a story of bleak, empty warfare, Mendes' never lets his desert be an barren wasteland. Instead, the characters (and therefore the audience) always seem to feel strongly that the enemy is waiting just over that shimmery horizon, or in the shadow of burning oil wells (but no, it's just an Arabian horse covered in oil). There's lyricism to his urgency, you feel the sweep of the landscape, but there's always a deep gut feeling that you're among the action. If there was any action.

Plus, characteristically strong performances from Sarsgaard, Foxx, and Cooper manage to carry an incredibly difficult piece, while Gyllenhall simply shines as a tightly-wound, closed-off individual in a world of solidarity. But for all Gyllenhall's energy, the audience is never really let inside. We feel for him, but we never feel with him. It's the same distance we get from, say, Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List or The Constant Gardener. We appreciate the flawlessness of the acting, since it lets us feel the tension and power of each event. But we're still on the outside looking in.

In the end, it's a collection of pieces that never really gels into anything unified, but instead wanders through the desert endlessly (like an Arabian hors... oh, never mind).

The Rundown: Lessee, Jarhead gets one star for fantastic direction by Mendes, one for fantastic cinematography by Roger Deakins, one for fantastic performances by all concerned. Gyllenhall also get a star for having the sheer bravado to be willing to run through a good ten, fifteen minutes of the film wearing only a Santa hat around his groin, but the star gets taken away for actually letting him. I also give a star for the sheer power of the images, but I'll take that one back, too, 'cause I'm still ticked about the horse. That's three stars.

Oh, another half a star for the horse. That really was ridiculous. Two and a half stars.

* I'm in the library, Sam. Stop by anytime.