I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Jarhead

I actually saw this movie weeks ago, and I thought of this new technique to try: research. See, this is what happens. I see a movie and I like it, but it’s based on a book I haven’t read and I wonder how it compares. Maybe I wouldn’t feel the same about it if I knew my shit. This time I decided instead of reviewing the movie right away I would first read the book, then see what I thought.

The only problem is that after I read the book the movie wasn’t as fresh in my mind and it kind of blended in with the book. So I struggled with the review for a while until neither the book or the movie were fresh in my mind. What I’m trying to say is, this review might not be so hot. If I get all confused and start talking about leprechauns or a circus montage or something that doesn’t seem to fit what you know about the movie JARHEAD, do not take my word for it, assume that I am confused. Learn from my mistakes people, don’t read books or learn stuff. Because the more you find out, the more you forget about that you used to know.

JarheadJARHEAD is about leprechauns who join the circus during the first Gulf War. Or possibly about a platoon of marine snipers, I’m not sure. Specifically, it’s about Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal). The book has the subtitle “A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles,” and the other battles it’s referring to are not military conflicts, they’re the emotional and mental challenges soldiers face before during and after battle. The movie pretty much sticks to a chronological story of Swofford’s career, starting in boot camp and ending up out in the desert for the long, thirsty wait of Desert Shield.

The soldiers in this movie are some gung ho, gunblazin motherfuckers. In their off time they like to watch war movies, even Vietnam movies like DEER HUNTER. There’s a scene where the grunts have a screening of APOCALYPSE NOW. They know that shit like the back of their hand, like a nerd knows star wars. They yell out the lines and sing along with the music and whoop and holler. (The book goes into detail about how even the most anti-war movies are pro-war to a soldier, how they enjoy watching every kill, every rape. It probaly wouldn’t have been too charming if Jake Gyllenhaal had said that in the narration.)

I guess that sort of makes this a postmodern war movie. Alot of the story is about this war as opposed to their idea of what war is supposed to be, partly thanks to these movies, partly thanks to history. At first they fear they’re disposable to America, then they worry they’re not even usable. They slowly realize that as snipers they are becoming somewhat obsolete. They wait for months in the desert, they finally get that perfect shot that will cause a whole platoon to surrender, then some big cheese calls in the bombers to blow the shit out of them all. That’s not what they fantasized about when they were kids. They were supposed to sneak through the jungle and take out their prey for the US of A.

Throughout the movie the soldiers listen to the Doors and other ’60s bands. Somebody complains “That’s Vietnam music, can’t we get our own music?” When the war ends and they’re celebrating, they listen to “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. I thought that was a good choice. The power those guys were talking about fighting sure as fuck wasn’t over in the Persian gulf. Even more than the Doors, Public Enemy was anti-establishment music, but it meant something to those soldiers anyway. At least, in this fictional movie.

(The book doesn’t give any alternatives but in an interview Swofford said he listened to Jane’s Addiction and the Dead Kennedys back then. Dead Kennedys, that would’ve worked too. [see, I told you I did research on this one, reading interviews and shit. Next thing you know I’m gonna reveal that I joined the marines for this review {actually I have not done that, even though I still got a month left of commitment to excellence. sorry}])

Alot of reviews have said the first part of this movie is like FULL METAL JACKET and the second part is like THREE KINGS. I guess the fact that this one reminds you of those better movies shows how it’s failed, but I think it does have its own feel. THREE KINGS did a great job of capturing the surreal images of the war (cows stepping on landmines) but it was sort of a heist thriller, at least pretending to be an action movie. This one is about the lack of action. About being shipped off to the desert and not doing anything, and still going crazy. It’s at its best when it’s depicting the weird little details about the war: the drinking tubes on the gas masks that don’t work, having to drink water and pee all day, being forced to play football in full chemical gear as entertainment for reporters, having to burn buckets of shit as punishment, seeing lots of dead Iraqis and very few living ones, and most of all the apocalyptic look of the burning oil wells. There’s a scene where Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx are covered in oil, watching the fires against the black sky, and Jamie Foxx says how he loves this job because nowhere else would you get to see shit like this. And I really wasn’t sure if he had a good point or was completely insane.

Before it came out I kinda figured JARHEAD was a best picture nominee shoo-in, because it would seem politically relevant but not too politically relevant. Knowing Sam Mendes I figured it would be something where it would seem like a strong political statement for whatever it is you want it to be a statement about. Like Forrest Gump. Of course, when it came out nobody liked it all that much and the chances died down, but also most reviewers seemed to say it was not political at all and didn’t take a stance on the war. I don’t agree. It’s not too heavy-handed, but there is a scene where he comes across the “highway of death,” the long road of burnt cars, the civilians trying to escape who were incinerated from the sky by our exciting new smart weapons. Remember the bomb that went right down the chimney? And the guy on the bridge that got blown up? Yippee!

In the movie, Swofford and his brigade come across that, and they don’t make some corny speech about it or anything, but there’s a long quiet walk through the bodies, a horrifying tour. And I think the fact that that was finally put on screen sort of makes it an anti-war movie. Or at least anti that part of the war. (Of course, the book tells us that there are no anti-war movies and Swofford says it’s not because it’s about the soldiers who fight the war, not the suits who decide to launch it.)

My favorite character was Kruger. It took me a few scenes before I realized he was Lucas Black, the kid from SLING BLADE. He’s still a good actor and it’s kind of weird to hear an authentic southern accent in a movie. I like him because he’s the one who questions authority, calls bullshit on the bullshitters. He says the war is about oil and he spits out the pill he’s forced to take. But later he wants to kill people just like everybody else. Because he’s not just a vessel for expressing a certain point of view, he’s complicated, like a real human.

I guess I can understand why nobody fell in love with this one. It’s not like the great war movies. It doesn’t have thrilling battle sequences or triumphant heroes, and when it does come across the horrors of war it has more of a quiet disgust than an outraged shout. But I liked it, I remember, and I think it has a unique point of view. It’s not so much about war as it’s about soldiers, what makes them become soldiers and what becomes of them because they are soldiers. You know Swofford is supposed to be a smart guy because he reads Camus on the shitter. He’s smart enough to see when his comrades are bloodthirsty and when they’re over the line. And he’s honest enough to see that he’s no different, maybe even worse. The scene where he finally snaps (one of the few big scenes that’s close to what happened in the book) is something I’m not sure I’ve seen before. You hear about soldiers fragging each other or killing themselves or going nuts and cutting off ears. But that’s people who have had to kill people and risk being killed. When Swofford snaps, he hasn’t even seen battle yet. But he finds himself pointing a rifle at his friend’s face and forcing him to repeat statistics about the weapon.

A buddy of mine hated this movie and said it was anti-soldier. I don’t buy that argument because it’s written by a soldier (William Broyles, who also wrote POLAR EXPRESS 3-D SPOOKARAMA) based on a book by a soldier. And it’s fairly faithful to the point of view of the book, and in some ways watered down. I think it’s just being honest, showing the inherent brutality of the whole military system while also showing the soldiers as human beings. Not as monsters, not as victims. Swofford’s view is that wars sometimes are necessary, but always are horrible. At the end of the book he writes:

“Unfortunately, many of the men who lived through the war don’t understand why they were spared… These men spread what they call good news, the good news about war and warriors. Some of the men who spread good news have never fought–so what could they have to say about the purity of war and warriors? These men are liars and cheats and they gamble with your freedom and your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the reputation of your country. I have gone to war and now I can issue my complaint. I can sit on my porch and complain all day. And you must listen.”

Reading the book though made me like the movie a little less. The movie is fairly respectful of the spirit of the book but when you read the actual memoir it’s more obvious how much they Hollywooded the shit up. And I don’t know, I know they’re making fiction and not a documentary. But I feel kinda weird about how much they deviate from the facts of what happened. I mean I guess it doesn’t change the meaning when his guys are accidentally fired upon by their own jets, instead of tanks like in real life, but why would you change that when it was something that actually happened? And I’m glad somebody’s acknowledging the “highway of death” in a movie but since Swofford never saw it (or at least never mentioned it in the book) it’s kind of cheating, isn’t it?

Same thing with the scene where the guy gets his head blown off in training. Horrifying scene, but didn’t happen, at least to Swofford. Is it a universal military type of thing to witness something like that, and not just a scene out of STARSHIP TROOPERS? Maybe, but then why didn’t Swofford see it happen? And there’s a fucked up scene where one of the soldiers plays with a dead body like something out of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2. In the movie it seems believable, but then you read the book and there’s no mention of it. I guess it’s inspired by the scene in the book where after the war a bunch of them, not just one guy, use dead bodies for target practice. But they had to simplify the story so they leave when the war is over so then they had to change it but why would they be practicing DURING a war so now we got something different and it’s not true anymore and there’s your movie. Enjoy.

To be fair, Broyles is a Vietnam vet and his son is in Iraq now, so some of this stuff may come from his own experiences and things he’s heard about from others. It’s hard to really know. In the movie Gylenhaal says they’re jarheads because their head is a jar that ideas can be put into. Since Swofford never gave it that meaning in the book I thought it was fishy, but then I read an interview where Swofford did explain the title that way. So who knows. Until I stop reading I won’t really know what to think about the movie, I’ll keep changing my mind.

Here’s the important thing though: they coulda made it a much more unique movie if it was more the book and not trying to fit it into a standard war movie template. They did alot of things to make it different from other war movies, but following the book more would’ve really done the trick. There’s so much more of the little details. They should’ve had a young Swoff before he’s in the marines. There’s a great scene in the book where the USMC recruiter comes over to the house. His mom makes cookies and coffee, his dad gives a tour of the backyard and introduces his dogs. They sit down and make small talk about the furnishings, about dad’s days in the air force in Vietnam and that kind of thing. Then all the sudden dad says, “Staff Sergeant, I’ll sign your contract if you guarantee me you won’t get my son killed. Then I’ll sign your contract. Otherwise, you sould leave my house.”

Once he’s old enough to sign up himself, his dad drives him off to boot camp. But before he drops him off he brings him to the place where he was born.

In the movie there’s a subplot about how his girlfriend sends him letters that make it obvious she has a new boyfriend, and it’s such a common occurrence there’s a “wall of shame” he can go put her picture on. In the book he actually has multiple girlfriends and the betrayal is not all that surprising to him. But the similar scene is maybe even more devastating – he realizes that his mom has been remarried and didn’t even tell him. It’s deeper than just infidelity – he wants the world to stop and wait for him to get back, but he realizes it won’t. Life goes on while he’s stuck in the desert drinking, pissing, jerking off and worrying. There’s also a real interesting thing about obscene “any marine” letters that the guys without lots of correspondence receive, and what the letters mean to them. Maybe that doesn’t sound cinematic but I really think it could’ve been a more memorable movie if they approached it more like they were adapting FIGHT CLUB or something instead of making war movie.

Still pretty good, if I remember right, but the book is better.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Sunday, December 11th, 2005 at 10:01 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Jarhead”

  1. I really liked this movie when I saw it in 2005, I need to watch it again sometime

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