JARHEAD directed by Sam Mendes, written by William Broyles Jr. from the book by Anthony Swofford, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper and Skyler Stone. 115 minutes. Opens Friday (November 4). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
The scene in Jarhead that gets people talking comes early on. Marine recruits at a Florida barracks watch Apocalypse Now, and it drives them into a frenzy. The Ride Of The Valkyries attack sequence gets them whooping, cheering, pumping their fists in the air as helicopters swoop down on a Vietnamese village. The ironies pile up like bodies. An attack that came with its own propaganda campaign blaring from helicopter speakers now gets willingly consumed as propaganda. A Vietnam epic becomes Gulf War entertainment. Art dissolves in testosterone.
It's worth noting that Jarhead was edited by montage guru Walter Murch, who also cut Apocalypse Now. Sam Mendes directs the film with impressive craft, but it's the collisions of images, sounds and ideas that make Jarhead the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan.
And there's barely any war. Based on the book by Gulf War veteran Anthony Swofford, it tells the story of Marine recruits (Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Skyler Stone) undergoing typically brutal training, then shipping out to the Gulf to wait for weeks in the desert. When the war finally comes, it's over as fast as a boy's first fuck.
All this is filtered through Gyllenhaal's Swofford character, who has the extra sensitivity of a budding writer but proves as prone to raging groupthink as any of his fellow grunts. Stand this performance next to his work in Brokeback Mountain and Gyllenhaal looks like the definition of masculinity right now.
Jarhead is only Hollywood's second Gulf War film, after Three Kings, but it's the first to frame the junk-culture chaos of that conflict in the more elevated drama of traditional war movies. Where Three Kings felt like an assault on military idiocy, Jarhead stands in a line with All Quiet On The Western Front, Paths Of Glory, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. It's not always the equal of those films, but it's as ambitious, and it's far more generous than Three Kings, both to its soldiers and to its audience.
It makes clear how for a Marine fighting is like sex, and how, if you're sitting in the desert waiting to fight, you might as well be watching another man fuck your wife. That truth is brought home hard in a scene that taps another iconic Vietnam film, The Deer Hunter.
More than anything, Jarhead is about how we watch war, and what we make of watching. It's a movie of aesthetic moments, like when Saddam's troops set the oil fields on fire. Swofford comes across a stray horse, slicked black with oil falling from the skies, wandering in a desert backlit by spouts of orange flame. It's gorgeous. Watching the image made me want to cheer inside.
And that's the dilemma Jarhead both deals in and acknowledges. Yay, war.