War. Huh. What is it Good For?
Watching the trailer for Jarhead the other day I found myself momentarily persuaded that this might be the incisive, what-the-heck-are-we-doing-here? account of the Allies' misadventures in the Gulf the world has been waiting for. Jarhead the Trailer looked like it wanted to do for Iraq what MASH did for Vietnam, Apocalypse Now did for Vietnam, and Full Metal Jacket did for Vietnam. I was pretty excited there for a minute. Then I remembered I'd already seen that movie - it was called Three Kings - and what's more I'd seen Jarhead too. [shrugs]
In his first-person memoir of life as a marine during Operation Desert Shield, aka Gulf War 1, Anthony Swoffard notes that the first thing he and his platoon did was go out and rent all the Vietnam war movies they could get their sweaty palms on:
Sam Mendes illustrates the point in Jarhead's best scene: an extended clip from Apocalypse Now, the Wagnerian helicopter attack, which an audience of gung-ho recruits watch in a frenzy of excitement. Of course it's debatable whether we watch this new scene appalled at the marines' vicarious bloodlust, or share it, but at least it's a new wrinkle in a scenario that often feels like a compilation of outtakes from Full Metal Jacket (Jamie Foxx as a tough-as-nails drill sergeant), Apocalypse (voice over narration and the surreal fireworks of the burning oil wells), and Three Kings (larking in the desert for the media).
The link between war movies and pornography is made more explicit later on, when the troops settle down to watch a video of The Deer Hunter, only to find it's been taped over with a particularly vicious Dear John message. Often it seems like these soldiers' biggest enemy is the girl back home.
But the film's benumbed knowingness can be distracting. A prolonged sequence when Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) threatens to blow away one of his screw-up comrades is played for high intensity stakes, but watching it, we're so attuned to these allusions it's impossible not to think of Vincent D'Onofrio freaking out in Full Metal Jacket, or Christopher Walken's Russian Roulette routine.
Swoff pointedly hefts a paperback of Camus' The Stranger, around with him. But Jean Baudrillard would have been more appropriate. The French post-modernist famously claimed the first Gulf War did not take place: 'how is it that a real war did not generate real images?' he wanted to know, referring to the highly selective and remote footage we were allowed to see on the TV news.
Swoff would understand his confusion. 'That's Vietnam music,' he complains, listening to someone blast The Doors. 'Can't we get our own fucking music?'
In an over-simulated world young men like Swoff sign up for a dose of reality: what could be more real than kill or be killed? His frustration is that the marines spend Desert Shield watching and waiting: 'Are we ever going to get to kill someone?' echoes his cri du coeur. The answer may surprise you.
Jarhead would dearly like to be this generation's Iraq movie, but in the end, for all its skill (and despite Roger Deakins' sand-blown cinematography), it feels fatally unformed. Perhaps because when it comes to politics the movie assumes the ostrich position, or maybe because Mendes allows Swoffard himself to remain a cipher, the film fails to find its own defining moment. Over-scored and over-familiar, it can't help but feel like a postscript to Three Kings, or perhaps a prequel to the next great war pic. A soupy last minute recourse to band-of-brothers' sentimentality only hammers home the filmmakers' gnawing desperation. In war-porn terms, it's decidedly anti-climactic.