The Burnt Remains of War: Jarhead, a film directed by Sam Mendes

By Daniel Garrett

Jarhead
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, 
and Dennis Haysbert
Universal Films, 2005

Jarhead, a film based on the war memoir of Anthony Swofford and directed by Sam Mendes, is a portrait of self-annihilating, soldier-constructing marine training, and it details the Persian Gulf War of 1991. The war—undertaken after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait and refused to leave (Kuwait had oil fields valuable to many)—lasted only about four days, but more than twenty-five thousand Iraqis were killed in that time. If it wasn’t the execution of a scorched earth policy, it seems to have been a scorched people policy. The film contains little politics—in terms of ideology, debate, motivation, or effects; and is mostly concerned with the specifics of a brief war-time experience.

One observes how marines are forced to respect the bluntest authority and also how they are rid of their fear of being shot (they crawl on the ground below barbed wire while live rounds are aimed in the space above that wire and their heads). The men spend down time mocking each other, watching war films, speculating about what their wives and girlfriends back home are doing, and also masturbating. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swofford, Peter Sarsgaard is his friend, Chris Cooper a wildly enthusiastic commanding officer, Jamie Foxx is a staff sergeant, and Dennis Haysbert another officer. Gyllenhaal is seen reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger—which makes one wonder, If he’s smart enough to have good taste in literature, why did he go into the armed forces? At one point, Swofford says he was dumb enough to sign a military contract and at another he says he got lost on his way to college. Of course, if intelligence were all, more than a few of us would be doing something else with our time.

Swofford and his comrades are frustrated as they do not get to use their shooting skills during the war, as more is quickly accomplished by air bombing. Gyllenhaal is fine in the part, and has several expressive scenes—when Swofford masochistically wants to watch another soldier’s wife’s adultery tape to have a sense of what betrayal feels like; when he’s insanely angry with a comrade who was supposed to take his watch, but whose cooking started a fire and caused Swofford trouble; and when Swofford sees the burnt remains of a convoy of fleeing Iraqis, and later when he stops a soldier from abusing an Iraqi corpse. Sarsgaard’s performance seemed uneven to me: he was sometimes an ordinary masculine male, sometimes a leader, sometimes a misfit, sometimes a sensitive mess. I was taken aback when Sarsgaard’s battle-ready recruit takes a phone out of Haysbert’s hand: it seemed disrespect of authority and the denial of the black man’s presence (and I found it hard to imagine the same thing would have been done if a white officer had been involved: every once in a while something like this occurs in a film—when the authority of a black male is entirely undermined). Before this, Haysbert has compelling moments as an officer—punishing Swofford for dereliction of guard duty, then insisting on using the outhouse before Swofford tends it (it’s Haysbert’s manner that’s compelling, striding forth as if he owns the land and the men on it). I wouldn’t say that Jamie Foxx is bad in Jarhead, nor that he was bad in Stealth: only that these characters do not allow him the careful performance he gave in the biographical film Ray; and in Jarhead he’s a dedicated military man—committed, forceful, and loud, but decent. Jarhead, which has a documentary style with the narrative continuity of a short story, delivers what feels like a complete experience.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism. Garrett’s review of Jarhead first appeared as part of his long piece entitled “ICONOGRAPHY: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” (Offscreen.com, 2006). Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail addresses are D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com and dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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