By Sarah Carlson, Arts Editor
You don’t want to be a Marine.
Or at least I don’t. Glimpsing the world of the Corps through “Jarhead,” a jolting look at troops’ lives during the Gulf War, made the images of war I’m used to seeing on TV all the more real. The harsh realities they face and the vicious training they endure is finally presented unedited for the American public and is sure to make most squeamish. Nevertheless, putting names and faces to the reality of war is imperative when analyzing it.
“Jarhead” isn’t political, though it has ample room to be, considering its location is Iraq, the enemy is Saddam Hussein and the President of the United States is George H.W. Bush. But director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) wouldn’t take the bait to make the film into something it’s not: an opinion on the United States’ current dealings in Iraq.
Based on the book with the same name written by Marine Anthony Swofford, “Jarhead” follows Swofford, or Swoff, from basic training to Desert Shield to Desert Storm, chronicling his experiences and feelings and bringing a rarity to the screen: combat through the eyes of a troop.
Countless war movies have been made, each accounting certain battles, strategies, companies and personal missions of troops, but none quite compare to Jarhead. The self-ascribed moniker “jarhead,” which refers to what a Marine’s head looks like when shaved, represents the film’s apparent point: to give you a glimpse at what it feels like to be a Marine, living in the desert across the world from family and trying to find entertainment while waiting for a war to start.
A third-generation enlistee, Swoff joins the Marines for reasons of which he’s not quite sure. He’s smart, and after boot camp, the Corps tags him as a possible sniper. Swoff endures rigorous training under the command of Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) who leads the scout/sniper platoon, and teams up with Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), a die-hard Marine who brings a level head to the madness of war.
At first, Swoff would rather make himself sick, hide in the bathroom and read Albert Camus than serve. But, once given the opportunity to prove himself and become a sniper, he accepts the challenge and completes the training, only to be whisked to the Middle East for Operation Desert Shield.
During much of the film, the Marines have nothing to do in the desert but wait for the war to begin, and the count of troops in the Middle East flashes on screen throughout. As the number of troops increases, so does the desperation of the Marines to find their one shot-one shot against the enemy that will reassure them that their time served was worth it. Finding the shot isn’t easy, and most of their days are filled with trying to stay hydrated, creating games to play among their friends and wondering if their wives or girlfriends will be faithful to them while they’re away.
Members of the platoon range from the shy types, who just want to go home, to the ignorant, who want nothing more than to kill for pleasure. Swoff and Troy both search for meaning and balance between the extremes while in the desert. Through this, both begin to lose their minds because they actually have minds to lose.
They’ve been institutionalized by the Corps, learning a new code to live by down to the terms they use for everyday items. A shirt was now a blouse, a flashlight-a moonbeam, a pen-an ink stick, a bed-a rack. As their master sergeant had yelled at them during training, they were now green-dark green or light green-but green. They’ve been trained to carry out a job, but the only job they have to do is sit and wait.
“Jarhead” explores how one of the biggest problems stemming from wars is the psychological effect it has on the troops. They are trained to be machines on the field, killing and defending themselves at all costs. Coming home, balancing what used to be normal and what they have been trained to think as normal, is a punishment most are not expecting.
Coming to terms with this struggle proved even harder when Desert Shield became Desert Storm, a war that ended in a matter of days and left many soldiers without their one shot. No sooner had they left for their first sniper assignment, Swoff and Troy return to hear of the victory and wonder what their time had been good for.
The film’s biggest flaw is the wrap conclusion it brings when the troops have gone home. We don’t know what Swoff is doing now, but we do know he can’t get images of the desert out of his head or the feel of a rifle out of his hands. A character dies, but we don’t know how or why, and this time at home should have been developed more fully in the film to give the audience a better view of the tough transition from war to home.
Jarhead isn’t easy subject matter, and most studios didn’t want anything to do with it when the book was released in 2003 because of the political tie-ins and the extreme R rating. Mendes took a chance on it as his third film, and fans of “American Beauty’s” dark humor shouldn’t be disappointed. Exceptional cinematography takes the viewer to the desert and conjures memories of seeing burning oil tanks on our TV screens.
While not perfect, “Jarhead” still finds itself among the most unrelenting and better movies about war and highlights of the year so far