For a while there it looked like all the stars were all aligning for Sam Mendes' adaptation of Jarhead, former Marine Anthony Swofford's best-selling account of his Desert Storm experiences. Tobey Maguire, Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio all reportedly vied for a lead role that eventually went to Jake Gyllenhaal while supporting player Jamie Foxx morphed into one of Hollywood's brightest stars following the back-to-back triumphs of Ray and Collateral. As if all that wasn't enough George W. Bush invaded Iraq for dubious reasons solely to give Mendes' Desert Storm epic contemporary resonance.
Then Jarhead was released and a pronounced sigh of disappointment could be heard throughout the land. The film's mixed reviews certainly couldn't be mistaken for those of say, Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction but Mendes is the kind of over-achiever who aspires to greatness every time out so it was hard to see Jarhead as anything but a pronounced failure. Just as Road To Perdition aspired to be the Godfather of its time Jarhead set out to do nothing less than reinvent the war movie. When you aim that high you afford yourself all the space in the world to fail and Jarhead accordingly devolved from sure-fire Oscar bait to a commercial disappointment shut out at Oscar time. Surely when Jake Gyllenhaal was angrily masturbating in front of a toilet, threatening to kill a bullied peer or frolicking about in nothing but a pair of strategically placed Santa hats he figured his film would be honored by parties slightly more prestigious than The Visual Effects Society and the Black Movie Awards.
From a commercial standpoint Jarhead faced one huge obstacle: it's an action movie characterized by long periods of inaction and a war movie where the lead characters spend most of their time impatiently waiting to get their war on. Like Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead has a bifurcated structure. The first half of the film is devoted to Gyllenhaal's unsteady socialization into the rigid community of men that is the Marines. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. here indulges in epic arias of gleeful profanity the cast executes with rhythmic aplomb. Like Three Kings, Mendes has made a truly post-modern war movie, a Gen-X epic where the pop culture of the past serves as invaluable shared history for soldiers who bond through rousing screenings of Apocalypse Now–which is rather perversely employed as a strange form of morale booster–and drunken sing-a-longs to "O.P.P"
On one level the film's first hour is packed with incident. The soldiers are interviewed by the press, engage in all manner of profane, sexually explicit antics and prepare for combat. On another level all the cast is really doing is waiting, and waiting seldom makes for compelling cinema. That speaks to another of the film's structural shortcomings. Though I haven't read Swofford's book–and would probably have a different reaction to the film if I did–it seems to be a heavily internal tome whereas movies almost by definition have to deal with external matters. So Gyllenhaal slowly begins to unravel from loneliness, boredom, repression and fear.
When the boys are finally drawn into combat the fighting ends not long after it begins. Mendes has always been an assured visual stylist even when his material feels wholly bogus–see Road To Perdition–and in Jarhead's second half the desert begins to look like something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie: Pools of oil spilling everywhere blot out the sun and the only illumination is provided by poisonous oil well infernos. In Jarhead's first half the desert looks like the surface of the moon: empty, barren, an endless expanse of blank space. In its second half the desert begins to look like the ninth circle of hell.
Beyond Mendes' masterful visual sense, the god-like Roger Deakins' breathtaking, sun-baked cinematography and the equally god-like Walter Murch's editing there was much I loved about Jarhead, and not just because my expectations had been lowered by the film's somewhat baffling reception by critics and audiences. I liked the coiled intensity of Gyllenhaal's tortured performance and the disarming tenderness Foxx brings to his big monologue about loving Army life, just as I enjoyed yet another beautifully understated Peter Saarsgard performance (is there any other kind?) as a grunt with a dark secret. And I enjoyed the holy living fuck out of Dennis Haysbert and John Krasinski's juicy little cameos. I also liked the way Jarhead captures how increasingly distant memories of home can be a source of torment as well as comfort, how daydreams of being joyously reunited with girlfriends and lovers can easily turn into paranoid fantasies of infidelity.
In the end Jarhead may not say anything more profound to say about contemporary warfare beyond the old maxim about war being hell. But in an age where 300 makes warfare look like a sweet-ass interactive video game it's a message that bears repeating until people, especially people in positions of power, finally start listening.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?:Secret Success