Toward the end of “Jarhead,” Anthony Swofford’s 2003 memoir about the 1991 Gulf War, the author argues that those who “have never fought” have no right to praise the purity of war and warriors.
“These men are liars and cheats,” he writes, “and they gamble with your freedom and your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the reputation of your country.”
The right to utter these angry sentiments is earned, he argues, because the truth about war can never be communicated to those who have not experienced it. Not even a movie can do the trick, as Swofford points out in a chapter about such Hollywood “anti-war” productions as “Apocalypse Now,” which he and his fellow Marines watch in order to rev themselves up for Desert Storm.
“Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man,” writes Swofford. “ ...actually, Vietnam war movies are all pro-war, no matter what the intended message.”
This episode is enthusiastically recreated and expanded in Sam Mendes’ vivid, intelligent movie of “Jarhead,” in which a theater full of Marines shout and stomp to the “Ride of the Valkyries” as helicopters strafe a village in “Apocalypse Now.” It’s a mad moment that is meant to prepare the soldiers for the chaos ahead, yet it proves to be no substitute for reality.
Swofford and his Marine buddies have no idea what they will face as they wait in the desert for war to begin: the boredom, the nightmares, the edgy relationships with other soldiers, the bad news from home (most of it concerning the infidelities of wives and girlfriends). In the end, “Jarhead” may be the true anti-war film, because so little of it deals with the excitement of combat and so much of it focuses on psychological dislocation.
Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. have not only accepted the limitations of Swofford’s book but embraced them. There is no story, there are no fully developed characters, no big battle scenes, yet the string of anecdotes that make up the book turn out to be ideal movie material.
“I’ll write you every day,” a girlfriend declares, but when she hooks up with “a real good listener,” there goes even the illusion of a girl waiting back home. When Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is punished with a particularly vile form of latrine duty, he’s enveloped by the smoke from flaming feces — you provide the metaphor. His best friend, Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), goes to pieces because he’s denied one small triumph in a war that’s over as soon as it’s begun.
Chris Cooper turns up as a battalion commander whose drill-instructor act comes off as comic relief. Jamie Foxx accomplishes much the same thing as a sergeant who wonders why Swofford is reading Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” on the toilet. The casting is spot-on, but there are no great parts here, only a gang of grunts lost in a surreal desert landscape populated by mirages, towering oil fires and burnt-out corpses that don’t seem to have sense enough to fall over and be dead.