Jarhead

jarhead-poster“Every war is different, every war is the same.”

The Scoop: 2005 R, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, and Chris Cooper

Tagline: Welcome To The Suck

Summary Capsule: A kid in the Marines is sent off to war, and ends up bored out of his mind.

Lissa’s Rating: I’m deep in the review, so I’ll take the rating to say that ladies… Jake Gyllenhaal in two Santa Claus hats is not a bad sight at all.

Lissa’s Review: The family I come from doesn’t seem at all the type, but it’s pretty undeniable: I come from a military family. Not in the traditional way, mind you. We don’t have some patriarch barking orders and demanding pushups from us and wanting us all to be high ranking officers. Only one person went to military school. A lot of my family is actually quite pacifist and against wars. But we are a military family.

My grandfathers were both drafted (I think) in World War II. My mother’s father flew in the Army and manned the rat traps (you know, the little ball-shaped compartments on the bottom of the planes) and my father’s father served as something more of a chaplain. My grandmother was in the nurses’ corps during WWII. My dad — the only child on that side — would have been drafted into the Army during Vietnam, but enlisted in the Air Force instead, in hopes of avoiding the front and then stayed on in the National Guard. One of my mom’s brothers went to Annapolis and made the Navy a career, working all the way up to the Pentagon, the other went ROTC during college. Both of them fought in Vietnam. My two male cousins both did the Navy, and one’s still in as a flight school instructor, and spent considerable time over in Afghanistan and other parts of the world that he’s not allowed to tell us about. My bother, last I heard, is in the Air Force. Even my sister and I have served the military as civilians: I earned my graduate degrees by designing supersonic jet fuels for the Air Force, and my sister is a nurse at a veteran’s hospital.

We’ve all been associated with the military at some point, but what’s interesting is we all did it for different reasons. My grandfathers and father were drafted. My grandmother had a huge sense of adventure and ambition. My uncle wanted money for college. My brother wanted discipline for college. One cousin wanted to straighten out his life. One uncle and one cousin truly felt the desire to make a career out of the military. I wanted to get through grad school on an interesting project. My sister wanted a job where she felt like she was making a difference. Money. Pride. Love of country, love of self, love of family… there’s been as many reasons for my family members being in the military as there have been family members. More, really, because a lot of them had more than one reason.

One of the many, many reasons I liked Jarhead was that it reflected that not everyone joins the military for the same reason, and some of the reasons aren’t even all that noble or well-thought out.

It might come as a bit of a shock that I liked Jarhead as much as I did. Heck, it might come as a bit of a surprise that I even saw it, or at least that it was my suggestion. But there’s one very, very simple reason I was determined: Jarhead had both Chris Cooper and Jake Gyllenhaal. Now, I am a HUGE fan of Chris Cooper, in fact, he’s the reason I’m a Mutant. (One of the first things I knew about this site was that Clare appreciated the acting talent (and no, that’s not a double entendre) of Chris Cooper, who was at the time horridly under-appreciated.) But his presence in a movie isn’t necessarily a must see for me — after all, I still haven’t watched The Bourne Identity or Breast Men. And Jake Gyllenhaal I either love or can do without, especially when he’s trying to be Tobey Maguire. But the combination of the two… I fell in love with the father/son work they did in October Sky, and hearing that they were working together again was what made me suddenly very keen to see this one.

I was disappointed in one respect: they have one scene together. Chris Cooper has all of two scenes, and while the man is absolutely made to play a military role, he’s certainly not pivotal in this movie. Don’t go to see this one to see Chris Cooper, but go anyway. Believe me, it’s worth it.

Jarhead isn’t your typical war movie. And that makes sense. It’s set during the Gulf War (the first one), and that wasn’t your typical war. There’s no real guts or gore in Jarhead, and not many loud explosions or sprays of blood or deathbed speeches. In fact, there’s almost no fighting at all. What Jarhead looks at is a young Marine who enlists and then is sent over to the Middle East for the war, and then waits over a hundred days for a war that lasts less than 100 hours. I can’t really go into more of a detail about a plot, because there’s no clear, defined arc here. And for once, that lack of a definition actually works for me — especially since there is a clear journey that’s being explored.

It’s definitely a character-driven movie, as opposed to a plot driven movie. And you know what’s missing? The clichés. Sure, we have a group of soldiers. Some are religious. Some have girls back home. Some are ready to go home, some are dedicated to the military, some are funny, some are smart… but they’re people. They don’t fall into the tried and true roles of war movies. The guy who is religious doesn’t question his faith or ignore the horrors of war because his faith in God, and his Bible doesn’t block a bullet. The guy who is intent on fighting the Iraqis and killing doesn’t meet his end in a grisly death or learn to respect the enemy. The guy who shows a picture of his newborn baby actually survives the movie. But more than that, the characters are complex. They’re capable of feeling more than one emotion about the war, and they’re capable of taking on more than one role in the group dynamics.

There is a “band of brothers” type feel to the Marines we see, but for once, I’m actually convinced of the depth of emotion and the expression of it. It’s kind of funny, because the relationships we see in Jarhead aren’t as idealized or as deep as what we see in other war movies. But I think that’s why I was won over. It’s very evident how deeply these men care about each other, but there are no flowery speeches, meaningful glances, or long, heart-felt conversations. Instead, the caring is shown through their actions, crude as those actions may be, and the fact that these men stick together no matter what.

It was also very interesting to see the men’s personal lives, such as they were. The fact that a lot of men lost wives or girlfriends to infidelity, or even worried about, is something that I’ve rarely seen addressed in war movies. Not every woman was unfaithful, mind you, but I can’t imagine that it’s not a real concern to people on the front, and I know for a fact it happens. It’s a far cry from the image of the soldier staring longingly at the picture of the sweet little girl back home, who would never even think about anything else.

I also have to take a moment to say I found the acting truly memorable. Jake Gyllenhaal is not doing his Tobey Maguire impression, but instead is doing what’s probably some of the best work I’ve ever seen him do. This is the actor that was in October Sky, not the Jake Gyllenhaal of Day After Tomorrow. I was also extremely impressed by Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx (what is it with these random double letters here?), neither of whom I’ve watched much, but both of whom are reputed to be excellent. They were. But at the moment, I’m rooting for an Oscar nomination for Gyllenhaal. (He’s certainly doing the range thing this year, between playing a Marine and a gay cowboy.)

But what I really, really liked about this movie is something that you will either love me or hate me for saying. So brace yourself.

Recently, and most certainly ever since 9/11, there’s been an attitude of reverence in this country for our servicemen and women. You can criticize the war, if you want, but don’t you dare criticize our troops. It’s a backlash, not only from 9/11 but also from people remembering how badly we as a country treated vets returning from Vietnam. And while I really am glad that people are appreciating what our military does for us, I sometimes feel that it’s swung too far the other way — God forbid you say anything bad about someone in uniform! Servicemen and women are now put on a pedestal, and at times, that can be just as destructive, as they are not gods, but humans.

Jarhead doesn’t praise, nor does it insult. Instead, it presents several Marines without passing judgment. It’s left to the viewer to decide if these men are worthy of honor or damnation — and to be honest, the answer is somewhere in between. I found myself really respecting all the Marines, but hating some of the things they did. And that’s what I loved — that the Marines were not cardboard cutouts and were not whitewashed by nobility, but were portraits of people I could believe were real. What the movie really drove home to me was that these Marines we were watching were young men. They acted like young men probably would under the excruciatingly trying circumstances they were put in. They did things that I really respected them for, and they said things that were so idiotic I wanted to slap them upside the head. To me, that was real, and far more interesting than the portrayals of military life I’ve seen recently.

The film’s objectivity also extends to the Gulf War. Your guess is as good as mine what the people making the film really thought of it. We are treated to the Marines’ points of view, and that’s it. The war is presented as a fact: the administration has said there will be a war, and therefore these men we are watching must fight it. The movie doesn’t gloss over the atrocities of war, and yet, it doesn’t dwell on them, either. War is brutal and violent and will result in the loss of life, and that is simply accepted as fact. The political judgments are left entirely up to the viewer… if the viewer even wants to think about it. But I don’t see it as a chickening-out approach. For the enlisted Marine, war is a fact, no matter what you think of it, and the Marine’s point of view is the one the movie focuses on. I would guess that you can’t think too deeply about the politics if you’re enlisted, especially if you don’t agree with them, because not only did you accept this as your job, but I imagine disagreeing with why you’re at war too strongly would be dangerous to yourself and the rest of the people you work with. I’ve never enlisted so I can’t say for sure (and I’m sure it varies for each person), but I appreciate why the filmmakers never addressed the politics.

Jarhead really resonated with me, because Iraq and its problems are my generation, my ‘Nam. So I went looking for other reviews to see what they have to say. I was a little surprised that they weren’t as glowing as my own. One of the most common criticisms is about the lack of action, and in fact, we heard that very quote as we left the theater- someone saying how realistic they thought the movie was, but boring. But to me, the lack of action — particularly military action — was exactly what this movie was about. Jarhead was about being an enlisted person in a time when wars are fought by technology. (It’s funny, I keep remembering the speech in that Simpson’s episode about how the wars of the future will be fought by robots, and it will be your job to maintain those robots.) The concept of the working man shunted aside by technology is not a new one, but this is the first time I’ve seen that applied to the business of war.

Jarhead is not a perfect movie, for all my praise and rambling. I really would have liked a little more character development, and there were some intriguing hints into the main characters’ lives that were never expounded on. I mean, there’s something about Swofford’s sister that is hinted at but never materializes. One of the Marines receives a “Dear John” letter from hell, and while its insinuated that he might have done something to deserve it, we know nothing about it. And the ending… I didn’t catch the reason the ending happened, which kind of annoyed me. Aside from wishing for more character development, the mere lack of politicizing and the way the Marines are shown might bother some people. But this is us- this is our generation, and the way our wars are fought. This is not the romantic version of the WWII soldier, or the haunted ‘Nam vet. This is a representation of a military life in a world that is dominated by technology and terrorism but hasn’t quite caught up yet.

Darth Vadar's wondering how Jamie Foxx got to Tattooine.

Darth Vadar’s wondering how Jamie Foxx got to Tattooine.

Intermission!

  • Based on the book by Anthony Swofford.
  • Heh. Amusingly, Tobey Maguire tried out for the lead role. Which is funny, given that I think Jake Gyllenhaal tries to do a Tobey Maguire impersonation in some movies, and fares much better when he doesn’t.
  • Filmed in the Imperial Valley in Southern California, which features conditions very similar to Iraq. Marines did use one of the local towns, Brawley, for training purposes due to similarities to Iraq.
  • Don’t Worry, Be Happy!
  • Cooking sausage can be a very, very bad thing. Especially open flames near fireworks.
  • With a name like Fergus, could you NOT turn out like that?
  • Oil in your eyes burns. And yes, it really does – I’ve gotten jet fuel in my eyes before.

Groovy Quotes

Swofford: [on why he joined the USMC] Sir, I got lost on the way to college, sir!

Swofford: Every war is different, every war is the same.

Swofford: For most problems the marine is issued a solution. If ill, go to sickbay. If wounded, call corpsman. If dead, report to graves registration. If losing his mind, however, no standard solution exists.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • October Sky
  • Black Hawk Down
  • Full Metal Jacket
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5 Comments

  1. Good review Eunice. It definitely isn’t the happiest war flick out there, but it hits hard with a reality that most soldiers go through on a day-to-day basis. It’s just that their movies aren’t the ones we’re seeing.

  2. Dear Mrs. Lissa.

    Hi, how are you? This is Mike. I was the soldier that wrote you a glowing review when I was deployed to Iraq back in 2005. Your work and your insight to the movie “Jarhead” are as sharp now as they were back in ’05.

    I just want to thank you once again for capturing the spirit of both the movie “Jarhead” as well as the book. I would love to get in contact with you.

    If only so I can have a voice to go along with the e-mails.

    Your film reviews are wonderful. Keep up the great work.

  3. Pingback: The Kingdom | Mutant Reviewers

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