Jarhead, directed by Sam Mendes

First published by Peace News in Issue 2470, February 2006

Jarhead is yet another Sam Mendes tour de force. This time bringing the Anthony Swofford memoirs of a US marine scout/sniper in the first Gulf War in Iraq to the big screen, once again Mendes has brought the same intensity and throw-away realism that his previous Hollywood adventures have also had.

Just like his previous big-budget outings, Jarhead adds an abstract or almost surreal quality to the very real and mundane nature of one aspect of the US way of life – this time it is modern warfare.

In Jarhead the viewer shares with the protagonists the ordinariness of the extra-ordinary and the hypnotic profoundness of the everyday. Whether it is the other-worldly modern suburbia of American Beauty or the human frailty he brings to the gangster train crash that is Road to Perdition, Mendes can shine a light that reflects brilliance while casting shadows.

Oscar Award-winning, Reading-born Mendes combines documentary-like realism and set-piece cinematography to bring the desert and the marines alive in front of your very eyes.

The direction and production are both excellent, and would have most probably made any old script and third-rate actors worth watching; but it is Swofford’s book, Jarhead, William Broyle Jr’s screenplay and, what must be, for me at least, Jake Gyllenhaal’s best acting job to date, which are the foundations that set up Jarhead as a very real contender for the Academy awards this year.

It is in every sense a film of two halves. The first half shows the brutal training regime that dehumanises the twenty-year-old into a killing machine to be directed by politicians. Much like Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead could be used to put young men off joining the military. The second half is a water torture of directionless boredom, as the viewer watches hyped-up and stressed-out terrified kids waiting to kill or be killed, while the war is being won from ten thousand feet above their heads.

Are the film and book anti-war? Well, there has been a lot of to’ing and fro’ing in both the UK and US press about exactly that. And to be fair that is only to be expected when the film is released while there are still US and UK troops in Iraq.

There is cheerleading for the camaraderie of brothers in arms, but at the same time there are clear examples of the absurdity and brutality of modern warfare. Jarhead is narrated by the Jarheads; it’s the story of grunts, up to their knees in sand and bullets in the middle of a desert, thousands of miles away from their minimum wage jobs and families.

The marines that are killed during the film are killed by friendly-fire or during training. There are voices during the film making the case for protecting oil profits in the west as the primary motivator for going to war and the contradiction of fighting enemy soldiers, armed by their own politicians, while there are counter voices for the defence.

In response to all of this, Swofford himself has kept pretty tight-lipped, while the usual cheerleaders on both sides have been having a field day. But by taking such polar extremes of being pro-war or anti-war when it comes to criticising the telling of a story from the point of view of a young man that has gone to war and come back to tell the tale, is at best simplistic. Humans are complicated creatures and, in their most dark desperate and lonely times, are complex and unfathomable.

Jarhead will receive and has received acclaim and criticism from every corner, but in the end it is one man’s story of his own life, one man’s attempt to make sense of his own life, for others to see and perhaps help shine a light on their own lives and the world in which they live.