War is so random. You can have months of expensive and thorough training and get blown to bits by a bomb you didn’t even see coming. You can find the most suitable cover and still get shot. You can think of every possibility and get sick and die like any other regular person.
The best war movies show time and again that it isn’t GI Joe stuff, but the battle between the ears that is most often the hardest challenge.
Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives at boot camp wary but confident. The next weeks and months systematically extract all hope and capacity for original thought. All become a number, different but equally irrelevant, separated by only their specialty and those tricky stickers on their helmets – the equivalent to fast food worker’s ‘flair’.
Swofford finds kinship only in adversity and animosity toward others, primarily the hard arsed Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) who seems to delight in pushing his men to the brink, and beyond.
Training is draining, brutal and uncompromising, sapping all but the core functions. Fear is strangled and ultimately starved, replaced by instinct and primal reactions and attuned through repetition. Swofford emerges at the other side a trained sniper, but one who has never taken aim at a living target, and in some roles a million prac hours can’t replace five minutes ‘on the job’.
They arrive in Kuwait in planes full of jumping beans, relieved to have seen the end of training and perversely excited to test the product of months of mental and physical bullying. They are animated and on edge, ginned up by empty but inflammatory rhetoric given by troop leader Lt Colonel Kosinski (Chris Cooper), who shows them photos of a tortured child – then says ‘but first let’s guard the oil’…
For weeks soldiers kill time only. Through nervous chatter. Through sitting about. Through releasing tension whichever way they can, usually through masturbation. They are told ‘soon’, ‘be ready’, ‘soon’, like little kids awaiting a trip to the zoo.
The wait is excruciating and frustrating. Tensions build and these highly trained men taught to ‘be ready’ find themselves at breaking point having never fired a shot.
Eventually the war and the film slips into second gear. The sight of the oil fires is amazing, but swiftly turns oppressive with the oil ash that coats the sand and fills the air and lungs.
Months of training and waiting never trained them for this.
The problem with any film is if you add unnecessary explosions and bulletic gymnastics you are glamourising it Rambo style. If you show the paper pushing and the waiting around you risk boring the audience.
Unfortunately unless you come up with a cool angle on the dullness (hi Three Kings) the reality is that reality is frustrating and tedious. Jarhead highlights the stuff that Chuck Norris neglected to show us, that war might always be stressful, but it is frequently boring.
Gylenhaal has developed a nice CV over the years, seeming to ignore the generic action stuff in favour of cop stuff spattered with a few rom-coms. Jarhead expands upon the Zodiac, Source Code, Prisoners core and shows that in a decade or so he might have one of the better resumes in Hollywood. But still his calling card might be that he isn’t yet a first choice actor, I can’t recall seeing his name on a poster and thinking ‘must see’, but I eventually track down his films and find most better than expected. I took years to bother watching this, and again I wish I didn’t wait so long.
Jamie Foxx permits no weakness in his Sergeant Sykes, ever vigilant and always ‘on’. It’s a brief but powerful performance, ironically it seems that Foxx is always more likable when he isn’t desperately trying to be so very likable. Many others play supporting roles, stealing moments here and there but blending together as one big kinetic mass of frustrated beige camouflage. It’s a strong group in a strong film.
Jarhead is not anti-war. It is not pro-war. It isn’t an oil ad or a Bush bash. It is an examination of war at its most powerful and pointless, and a chilling reminder that GI Joe and co might be more than a bit misleading.
Final Rating – 8 / 10. Amazingly I see a sequel. Not sure the film needed or wanted one. Just check this one out.