Unsure Shot

How a kid became a killer, almost, during the frustrating first Gulf War.

A memoir published in 2002 by former U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford became an instant, topical classic about a war that had been almost instantly forgotten a decade earlier. (See interview). Now, during the second and far bloodier Bush showdown with Iraq, there’s a whole new sense of topicality to Jarhead (which opens Friday, Nov. 4, at the Neptune and other theaters). It doesn’t tell us how to withdraw from the intractable occupation, or whether the cost—now over 2,000 American lives, plus many more Iraqis—would be better justified by staying longer. It won’t change anyone’s opinion about this war, or the politics of that war, Desert Storm, which are dealt with only briefly by a bunch of grunts riding in the back of a truck. Directed by a Brit, Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Jarhead is not a political film. It’s got its nose pressed too close to the sand for that. Its main achievement is to get us inside Swofford’s “empty vessel,” the mind of a Marine, a “jarhead,” as it is first formed by hardship, then filled with horror.

Twenty-year-old Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) reads Camus in the barracks, which immediately raises the ire of Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx, barking authoritatively). The Corps doesn’t want thinkers. It wants shooters who follow orders. Being an existentialist matters less than being an excellent shot, which Swoff discovers he is. Out goes the consolation of philosophy; in comes the thrill of a tight cluster on the target range and the prospect of a “pink mist”—the exploding brains of an enemy—on the battlefield.

Swoff tells us all this in passages lifted from the memoir, which the movie follows faithfully—perhaps too faithfully. Jarhead was an essentially interior book about a young man’s psychic formation and near dissolution during the long, tense buildup to what turned out to be a four-day aerial pushover. On the ground, there was some death, laughter, and fear, but the author never pretended to have seen more action than he did, making the movie somewhat uneventful. We forget now about the long posturing preamble of Desert Shield, when troops were sent to sit and train on the 100-degree sands of Saudi Arabia to simply intimidate Saddam out of Kuwait. (And let’s not forget that bin Laden’s grudge began with that deployment in the holy lands.) After Swoff’s Full Metal Jacket–style training in the states, there’s still more training, and boredom, and grumbling in the ranks. These guys want to kill someone. That’s what they were trained to do. Why won’t anyone let them do their job?

Jarhead takes us into a kind of frat house with guns: There are basically no women in the film, and the sexual taunting, the themes of virility and impotence, are everywhere. Chris Cooper appears as a colonel who tells his cheering men, “I just felt my dick get hard!” Swoff and his buddies drive off a TV crew with a stripteasing, dry-humping “field fuck” in the desert; it’s not really homoerotic—though a few will gape at the buff Gyllenhaal’s Christmas party dance with a Santa’s hat G-string—but a form of aggression. They want to fight more than they want to fuck. The contempt they feel for a “wall of shame” collage of cheating girlfriends and wives back home means they almost don’t want to go home. (Peter Sarsgaard’s character illustrates this best; having been forged by the USMC, the prospect of being expelled is like having his skin ripped off.)

There’s a great moment when Swoff and the guys sing along to Wagner during a screening of Apocalypse Now. They know every word of dialogue. Jarhead isn’t that good a war movie (nor does it compare to M*A*S*H or Paths of Glory), yet Swoff discovers, to his credit, that he’s no Kilgore or Willard or Kurtz. When he and his buddies are finally unleashed beneath burning oil wells, the sky lit lambent orange, they marvel, “The earth is bleeding,” and a rain of oil dapples their dazed faces. And when they come upon the famous highway where retreating Iraqi troops were incinerated into charcoal mummies, Swoff leaves white tracks on blackened sand, the one innocent left in a place profaned by death.

Maybe Mendes should’ve tinkered with Jarhead‘s structure to make it more exciting; he could’ve added incident to jazz it up, but our impatience is true to Swofford’s somewhat inconclusive experience in Iraq. He writes, “The men who go to war and live are spared for the single purpose of spreading bad news when they return.” The movie does that, too, and honorably.