In Jarhead, we get a definition of the title. It’s slang for a marine, so called because of the shape of his haircut. It also implies, we are told, that the head of a new recruit is like a jar: an empty vessel.
It’s the perfect way to describe the movie, too: an empty vessel. As well produced as Jarhead is, there is nothing inside it. And even if the emptiness is an intentional post-modern message about war, it’s still a fair criticism of this film.
The movie is a tour of the first Gulf War, seen through the eyes of a young marine who “got lost on the way to college, sir!” The first half of the film follows boot camp and Anthony Swofford’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) training as a sniper. The second half takes place in Iraq during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
But Is It Art?
R for language, violent images, sexual content
After American Beauty, Mendes’ reputation as an artist was sterling. But Jarhead raises the question: is Mendes an artist or a skillful pusher of buttons?
By the end, we realize that the movie has been about nothing. Some may argue that that’s the point. Seinfeld was ostensibly about nothing, so why not Jarhead? But there are meaty subplots and tangents in Jarhead that could have easily been developed into a theme. Better to nurture them and give the whole movie some substance than to be about nothing.
Jarhead is also guilty of a minor annoyance that is quickly becoming a pet peeve: the “obvious” school of movie soundtracks. Over the rigors of basic training, we are treated to Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry Be Happy. When the new soldiers have to try to get on — pay attention, now — their gas attack gear, we hear Get it On (Bang a Gong). A joke? Or was the music editor just being lazy that day? And at a party at the end of the war, we hear a track from Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. It’s not the exact same track, but the album and scene are stolen straight from David O. Russell’s much-better Three Kings.
I Knew Apocalypse Now, Senator...
Which leads me to another complaint: Jarhead seems to insist that it be immediately granted a place in the history of war movies. A full minute or two of Jarhead’s screen time is soldiers watching footage from Apocalypse Now. Another soldier is sent a copy of The Deer Hunter from back home, and everyone gather’s ‘round to watch.
Perhaps Mendes wants Jarhead to be a self-referential war movie about soldiers aware of their lives as potential fodder for future war movies. Then again, maybe he’s just trying to reflect a little glory from other great war movies onto his own project. It’s a surprise that Jarhead didn’t work in any references to Full Metal Jacket, the war movie it most closely resembles, broken into two distinct halves as it is.
Cult of Personality
I’ll leave open the faint possibility that Mendes is more than just a borrower of other people’s creative efforts, in part because I think Jarhead can be an entertaining war movie, thanks to a strong set of personalities.
Recent Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx has a great role as Swofford’s commanding officer. He’s enough of a hardass to humiliate his men when they deserve it, but his primary role in Jarhead is the “spirit guide” archetype. Like Obi-Wan, He nurtures the potential in our young hero.
Gyllenhaal is a wonderful young actor, perfect as the audience’s surrogate. His Swofford has a knack for honest self-reflection, an essential quality in a narrator. When he first fires his sniper rifle, he admits, “I was hooked.” When the boredom of war sets in, he walks us through the options, primarily masturbation. We learn the ropes at the same rate he learns, and he’s a great companion.
What Luck to Be Allowed to Be a Soldier
Of particular interest to Swofford, and us, are the deep psychological problems these Marines face. Boredom is just the surface. We come to understand that these Marines have been trained to kill. Now that they are in a war zone, they have hard-ons to kill. Their mantra “This is my rifle...” teaches them to believe that their hardware is an essential component of their personhood.
But this almost-sexual buildup is frustrated at the moment of climax by even higher-ranking soldiers with even bigger hard-ons to use even bigger and more expensive hardware. Why kill a single officer and accept forty surrenders when you can blast all forty-one of the enemy, and blow up some infrastructure to boot? (This would have made a good theme for the movie.)
Veni, Vidi, Redii Domum
There are interesting tangents and insights in Jarhead, but not enough to carry a movie. The primary impression Jarhead leaves is one of emptiness.
Caesar said Veni, Vidi, Vici: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Swofford’s story is “I came. I saw. I didn’t do anything. I went back home.”
Maybe that’s Mendes’ profound message of modern warfare. Then again, it could simply be proof that Jarhead was doomed from the start.