RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 31: Sam Mendes’ “Jarhead” (2005)


The Players…

Jake Gyllenhaal, Jaime Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, Brain Geraghty and Evan Jones, with Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert.

The Story…

The true story of how US marine Anthony Swafford endured training, heartbreak and service during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 90’s. Swaff learned hard that what it takes to be a soldier, and what’s after Basic, is not all its cracked up to be. Turned out to involve mostly sand.

The Rant…

I have known no war. At least not on the other side of a CNN camera.

I’ve made a few veteran friends in my days. All of them decent, upstanding guys who don’t talk much about the action they’d seen, unless you ask. Even then their stories are short, and delivered with humility, self-effacing modesty and more than a little melancholy. Any veteran who was in country, be it in WW2, Vietnam or the Iraq War doesn’t do a lot of heavy boasting or proffering up the glory of patriotism. Not a lot of flag waving; it mostly comes down to the edict, “I was just doing my job.” Following orders. A good example of this reticence was illustrated in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. Brief conversations with the actual vets who were Over There bookended scenes were honest, describing the action they saw, friends they had lost and to demands of “doing their job.” There was none of that bootin’-rally mentality with these guys. Just a somber, sober retelling of the experiences, conveyed alternating between humble pride and some sadness and self-resignation. To me it seems the real rabble-rousing patriotism associated with gun racks on the backs of pickups, Calvin decal pissing on the likeness of Bin Laden’s head and a lots of cans of Bud being held aloft accompanied with chants of “USA! USA! USA!” is not present in the men and women who actually served their country, overseas or otherwise. To them, to repeating it very mildly, it was “just doing their job.”

I, like many bloggers, have given over their sites to a great deal of social commentary. Hell, the subtitle here at RIORI is “A Social Study of Middling Movies.” Like others, I reserve the rights to spout facts and figures about this and that. It’s what blogs are primarily for: self-expression, in addition to railing against Hollywood, corporate radio, struggling with addictions, parenting, posting recipes and giving in to foaming-at-the-mouth ranting. Sometimes even I get that way. At RIORI, I do it couched in the reflections of how so-so films relate to the dreary sh*t we all endure daily. This is usually done rambling on and on and on about my experiences with this topic or that, often rabbit-trailing down the hole into self-parody.

This time out I’m covering a cultural matter I have no personal experience with, carried along only by the stories and musings of others I’ve encountered. From their stories alone I’ll try to hold together a hypothesis. I’ll try to behave myself.

Once again we find our intrepid blogger dragging his stinky, whisky-addled carcass out on yet another business junket. Nightly I was at my outer office, being served by possibly the best bartender I’ve ever abused. His name was Pat, and although he never outright talked about his military career—he was in the Army’s Special Forces—he had plenty of stories to share about his time in the service. Mostly were just humorous tales about his fellow soldiers and the shenanigans they got into. Some were about the many people he met while being stationed in Scotland and Grenada. Some were life lessons; pieces of advice he would impart on his customers to enhance whatever drunken chatter we were yapping about. He was personable, but maintained the attitude and demeanor of a soldier. You couldn’t bullsh*t him.

Pat never talked about his tours. He actually never saw any active combat. He did however share (on rare occasion) second-hand tales of action his peers saw. None in great detail. Mostly we heard about his friends’ exploits delivered in patient, stern tones. Pat always stared off into the distance when he told such stories. His tales weren’t necessary gloomy, nor were they stories of horror. According to Pat, most, if not all of the vets he knew that saw action didn’t wax poetic about it. His peers were soldiers, patriots and honest men who saw and experienced things that didn’t—as he put it—expect civvies to really understand. I could only glean by such consternation, that what he heard wasn’t worth repeating, at least to us “civvies.” It sounded without sounding so like heavy sh*t, such was the casual gravitas of Pat’s delivery. I had to respect that.

Moving on. Chapter two of my firesides.

Out of college I worked part-time at the local coffee house. It was comfy mom-and-pop place (okay, mostly a mom place) where mom served the requisite beverages and treats. It was close to both the local high school and a college, and naturally became a haven for students and bookish people alike. The clientele was a crazy quilt of adolescent nervous energy, thoughtful scholarly contemplation, chain smokers and armchair philosophers. All of whom needing their daily fix. Nice, homey place.

We had Bill the preacher, who was a Lutheran minister, always nose deep in some theology text working on next week’s sermon. We had another Bill, the ex of the shop’s owner, always loaded with stories about everything and nothing and smoked so many cigs that it eventually was his undoing. He was a car nut, a real gear head. He was a kind of guru to the local teens who had tricked out their rides. Every so often, some custom set of wheels would cruise by the shop and instinctively he’d wave the young driver down so they could talk shop. We had Barney, an earnest bibliophile with a healthy knowledge about comic books and science fiction in specific and literary criticism in general. A fave fact about Barney: he was set about to write Harlan Ellison’s biography at the man’s behest—they were buddies—only under the cranky s/f writer’s decree that he’d be dead before publication. Such was our little corner of the corner.

And there was Joshua.

He name really wasn’t Joshua. I just call him that to honor some privacy. Joshua fell into the camp of a reader. Quiet, seemingly only interested in coffee, that week’s haul from the library and keeping to himself. Through the unique social osmosis that only tightly knit patrons of a café can produce, we came to learn that he was a Vietnam vet. One of the high school kids was doing a paper on Vietnam, and figured it would be a good idea to talk with Josh, get some firsthand history. I overheard his story. I wasn’t exactly eavesdropping. I only happened to be nearby, within earshot. This is was I roughly heard Josh tell the kid:

Josh was a comm officer in Vietnam. He was the soldier you saw in movies squawking on the radio, lugging that pack that resembled an aqualung attached to an old school telephone receiver. It was his duty to relay details from his CO’s operations back to HQ, radio for help and call in the air strike if needs be. Josh told the kid that after his commanding officer, the guy on comm was the next target of roving Viet Cong rebels. You see, without the comm officer, none of the things listed above could be accomplished. If the guy giving the orders was dead, and then the soldier whose job it was to call for help was gone, well…

Joshua lost half his platoon on one mission, including his CO. He lost a lot of friends, some of whom he trained with at Basic. He said that Vietnam was a beautiful country, and was saddened by what happened during the American invasion. That’s the word he used. Invasion. Josh had this faraway look in his eyes as he told his stories, and he used sentences that were simple and short. The time he served in country was wrapped up in a few paragraphs. When the kid asked the immortal question, “Is that all?” Josh answered that that was all he could remember. Then he went back to his book and latte.

He stopped coming by the café shortly thereafter. I guess he went off looking for some peace. Again.

One more thing; a coda if you will:

My wife’s dad was a doctor in Vietnam, a surgeon. He told her his lone war story once. It was short and simple. Dad got up in the middle of the night after a nightmare. He wandered to the fringe of the jungle encampment to relieve himself. Minutes later there were explosions; Viet Cong descended on the camp, knowing nothing of the Geneva Convention and preceded to burn the mobile hospital to the ground. There was a lot of screaming and gunfire. Her dad was one of a few medics to escape unharmed. Most of the injured just burned.

That was all.

Soldiers’ stories of service are ultimately private things. Prideful, duty-bound, sometimes happy, scary or downright boring. But there they are. The soldiers, they were there. They saw it all. I didn’t. I’m a civvie, and can only imagine further what the reality really was. Putting it all into perspective, I guess I’m just not supposed to know. I just didn’t—as they say in the service—have clearance.

Which makes the story behind Jarhead a bit of a curiosity to me. If so many soldiers are reluctant to share their stories while in the service, save some older guys who have the luxury of distance between the war then and their lives now, then how—why—does a movie like Jarhead exist…?

Anthony Swafford (Gyllenhaal) comes from a proud family military tradition. His grandfather served in WW2, his father Vietnam. Seeing how he found out the hard way that he wasn’t quite college material, he chose to follow in the family footsteps. Be a Marine! Serve your country! Impress your girlfriend! See the world!

The world f*cking sucks. And his girlfriend does also, much to Swoff’s chagrin.

The world means the Saudi desert. Sand. Lots of sand. And lots of nothing. Some bully named Saddam Hussein sent his meager army to invade the small sultanate of Kuwait, and since Kuwait (again, small) is a major exporter of crude to the US, well, America’s mightiest forces better swoop down and defend its lowly citizens. Swoff was trained to be a sniper and expected to take kill shots at desert rats on the line. Defend freedom. Kill r*gheads. Glory!

Mostly it’s digging holes, cleaning out latrines, disassembling and reassembling your weapon over and over again like battling a Rubik’s Cube and making nice for CNN. Swoff did not endure endless backhands to the skull to just clean his rifle. Again. And again.

The life of a Marine is simple. Follow orders. Be punctual. Be respectful. Keep that rifle in proper working order. Forget about that girl you left home who is probably banging a readily available college guy. Maintain the initiative your fathers swore by (who’s women weren’t as hypersexed as yours turned out to be). Whack off crying. Enjoy lots of virgin sand occasionally stained by the smears of crude oil spewing from busted wells that you were dispatched to defend. Oh, and maybe also defend some Kurds while you’re at it. Get ignored by the higher-ups. Clean that rifle some more. Get high. And then get drunk. Oo-rah.

Yes, it takes plenty of hard work, brutal training, suffering much humiliation and eventual boredom to serve as a Marine in Desert Storm. Your muzzle grows ever colder. Your sleep gets ever lighter. You begin to piss out sand. You often wonder both was it this way for your fathers, and who your luscious former girlfriend is f*cking now? Not you, that’s for sure, but perhaps the Bush administration.

It’s all in just, you know, defending American values. And their interests…

Director Sam Mendes received both a lot of praise and eventually a lot of flack for his Oscar winning American Beauty. Beauty, IMHO, falls into the same category as Crash, Dances with Wolves, Chicago, and The Greatest Show on Earth (The Quiet Man was f*cking robbed back in 1953): a Best Picture winner that should not have won. Beauty was a good film, although gussied up by an ignorant press as the film to see for 1999. Probably because star Kevin Spacey got high and nymphet Mena Suvari played a reluctant Lolita. Titillation always works to grab an audience’s attention. Worked for me.

So Mendes endured some slings and arrows for his Oscar win, its artistic merits in question. His over-hyped follow-up, Road to Perdition, got some heat too. It was merely a comic book adaptation, after all. We all know that comic book movies are fragile darlings. That and Paul Newman will never die. Road also panned out in the same style as Beauty; it was overwrought, heavy-handed and also had an intrusive atmosphere. But it had Tom Hanks! As a bad guy! Against type!


And now we have Jarhead, a bio no one was asking for. Unlike the stories I was privy to about military operations, I wanted to know more about those, but I “didn’t have clearance.” With Jarhead I got full disclosure. Where can I get reprogrammed?

Mendes’ directorial style is very—well—direct. He lays it out and on with very little metaphor. The whole underlying message of Jarhead is basically, “This happens.” It’s the overall feel of his movies. Here’s what happens, take it or leave it. Thud.

But Jarhead is a tad different from Mendes’ other films. For one, it’s a bio, and; two…it’s been done before. Many times before. The “soldier’s story” is a tried and true Hollywood trope. It gets audiences’ butts in the seats. Mostly civilian butts. They come in droves to see drama, horror, blood, explosions. Especially explosions. Jarhead has a few (explosions that is), but precious little of the rest.

The curiosity I mentioned earlier relevant to the “war stories” relating to a narrative like Jarhead’s is thus: if so many vets are reluctant to speak about their life and times, then why would Swoffard think he’d have anything to say about a subculture which appears to be decidedly recalcitrant, especially to civilians? That being said, why would he say anything? I’m not saying there aren’t stories to tell, but the hell of it is—at least concerning movies that lift from real soldiers’ stories, i.e. Band of Brothers—most commercial adaptations are either honestly compelling but rather infrequent, like Patton or Sergeant York. Either that or gussied up to make them more palatable to the Hollywood crowd, a la Good Morning, Vietnam or Born on the Fourth of July against the sake of honest portrayals. In other words, they are either carefully chosen and/or doctored for their grittiness and/or accessibility. Such as it is.

Jarhead follows neither of these tenets. It’s a biopic based on a soldier’s story where basically nothing happens. Does an audience really wanna hear a war story about not being involved in battle?

In all fairness, Swoffard’s story is unique in the pantheon of real-life war stories as far as I have seen. His experiences depict the sheer humdrum of service as a US Marine in the Persian Gulf. Unlike all the films listed above—where sh*t actually happens, fabricated or no—Jarhead and ostensibly Swoff’s real-life service was more of less a study of surviving boredom and loneliness, not combat. If anyone out there can cite a war movie, biopic or otherwise, that examines the mundane of military service, please share. I willfully admit my ignorance here.

That’s the whole gimmick for Jarhead. It neither depicts the glory nor the horrors of war. It just shows us the monotony of it all. The downtime, the restlessness, the freakin’ boredom. Apart from the few scenes of actual tension—very few of them deal with being “in the Suck”—in the movie, Jarhead is an insular exercise in alienation and frustration. There’s a lot of navel-gazing. Interesting navel-gazing, but hardly compelling.

I understand that Jarhead is based on actual events, yet while watching it I could not escape the feeling of embellishment. One would think for a movie that I have attested is about nothing happening would demand a little more meat on the bone. But this feeling was not about elaboration for the sake of drama. It was for comedy. Maybe this is the Shakespearean trick of enhancing tragedy coupled with humor. Maybe the dark streak of humor that runs through Jarhead is meant to temper the drama with levity. Maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there.

There is some comedic undertones running through the film. Like other biopics covered here at RIORI (Cadillac Records springs immediately to mind), Jarhead employs the device of narrator; Swoff’s accounts of boot camp to the desert read as though lifted directly from the text, punctuated with self-deprecating jokes and tongue-in-cheek non-sequiturs to either make light of his troubles or enhance them. In any event, the narration, like Mendes’ direction, falls flat and too direct. No inferences. This happened. Then the next thing happened. And so on. The story plods.

As hinted above with my secondhand war stories, I am ignorant of actual combat. From what I did hear from vets is that there is a lot of “down time” in between missions. Actual battle, however brief, more than makes up for the lag. A minute of action balances out the hours of nothingness. Jarhead if anything illustrates this fact keenly. Three-quarters of the movie is not about the missions, but the waiting. Waiting to be a soldier. The rest of the time is divided between cleaning your rifle, watching porn, masturbating and other such shoe-polishing. It’s routine documentation of…well…routine in the life of a grunt is the unique facet of Jarhead. Sure, there have been other war movies that furnish the audience with the non-events of actual fighting (now MASH springs immediately to mind), but they were usually boosted with comedy or pathos. Not Jarhead. Swoff’s tales are simply a journal about waiting to “get on with it.” In fact, that’s how I felt watching the bulk of this movie, my eyes continuing darting to the counter on the BD player (“We’re how far into the movie and still no action?”).

A positive thing that tempers the languid tone is the nice pace. Jarhead has a nice flow. It’s easygoing, albeit a bit long. The film is seamless, edited well and has few hiccups. The cinematography, especially in the desert scenes, is flawless. What really accentuates the loneliness and alienation theme of the movie is seeing our cast either marching out in the middle of a sandy waste with no landmarks or bunkered down in endless, nameless bivouacs that are supposed to be, but don’t feel like mobile outposts. Gyllenhaal and his cast mates are more nomadic and seemingly rudderless than the Bedouins they encounter.

Jarhead also sports some pretty decent acting too. Nothing standout, save one role. But before that, let’s say that Gyllenhall has come a long way from Bubble Boy. This was his follow-up to Brokeback Mountain, in which he was superb. Here, his Swoff is a cipher; a blank slate for the audience to walk, or march—endlessly march—with in his boots. Most of the time, he fades into the background although he’s supposed to be the protag. Even his bouts of tragedy don’t come across as real or engaged. This happens.

On the other hand, both Foxx and Sarsgaard are very entertaining. Jaime Foxx’s Staff Sgt. Sykes is great. He’s very funny without being overt. His performance feels like it screams to the audience, “You’re in on this joke, right?” Toeing the line between being a commanding officer with all the baggage that comes with it paired with being an ambassador of goodwill to CNN (with all the baggage that comes with that) makes for a humorous and cutting take on what the Gulf War meant to soldier and homefront alike. And thanks to 24-hour cable news, the homefront was very directly involved.

Sarsgaard as Troy is yin to Gyllenhaal’s yang. Swoff entered the Marines as more or less legacy as well as not finding any place in civilian life. He conveys a cavalier, “what-the-hell” attitude. Troy is there because there is nowhere else he should be. Collected, mature and quietly wise beyond his years, Sarsgaard is the good acting/story rule of “less is more.” His performance has a definite economy of dialogue and action that is engaging, designed to get the audience on to what happens next with this guy, even more so than Swoff’s trials.

There are a few period touches to the movie that I liked. The use of the pop music of the early 90s does wonders to punctuate the feel of the times (the dream sequence set to Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” is chilling), as well as the contributions from Naughty by Nature, Social Distortion and C&C Music Factory. The soundtrack keenly complements the emotions of the actors almost perfectly. The omnipresent specter of CNN dogging the troops. We remember that on cable, Wolf “The Scud Stud” Blitzer was the talking head there on the frontlines in Kuwait, and we were glued to the tube every night for the casualty updates, yellow ribbons and all. No less under pressure were the troops, hounded to look busy and patriotic while sweating to death. These were the first real “viral videos” that so captivated the nation. It made the war seem more like a TV show than an actual conflict, and the movie makes no bones about CNN nosing in wherever and whenever it can.

An aside: it’s curious how slow it was to admit the (first) Iraq War was a mistake. Vietnam happened slower, lasted longer, and had the kids at home in an uproar for the better part of a decade. Just sayin.’

Despite the cynicism, there’s a vein of sentimentality running through Jarhead; a scent of nostalgia. These weren’t the best days of Swoff’s life, but they end up being the most significant. The training, the heartbreak, the monotony, the transformative power of “friendly fire”, all of it left an indelible mark on our hero. But it is mark of, simply, this happened. There just wasn’t enough oomph to Mendes’ direction and Gyllenhaal’s Swoffard.

Jarhead, for all its flat affect, is a stylized biopic. Mendes tried to add some weak flair to a decidedly weak story. Swoff’s accounts read as a cautionary tale. It’s not anti-war, it’s anti-lonely. It can even be gloomy at times, outright boring; the argument can be made that this was the point. At other times, Jarhead plays out like a poor man’s Full Metal Jacket. There’s a false, but somehow convincing sense of reality illustrated by the non-action your average Marine must endure. It’s kind of like being a cop. Sure, it looks exciting being on the case like in Law & Order. But any police officer can tell you it’s mostly desk work. Pushing papers (or reassembling rifles) drenched in disparagement and lowliness does not a stirring war moving make. At times interesting, but not stirring.

So Jarhead, the Janus-faced war chronicle. Poignant? Quietly. Honest? Probably. Engaging? Seldom. Tone?

Boring, and most likely on purpose.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. There are better soldiers’ stories out there, not unlike the ones I heard. I guess if you really want the dirt on combat, seek out your local vet. But chances are, he’ll be tight-lipped. I learned there’s a reason behind that.

Stray Observations…

  • “Thou shalt not kill…F*ck. That. Rule.”
  • I have heard that on the line, snipers do not blink when making a shot. Something about maintaining accuracy. Can anyone verify this?
  • “Metroid” doesn’t have nine levels. It only has five. Hey! Ow! F*ckin’ beer cans…
  • “Those were my sausages.”
  • Rain in the desert? How convenient. Must be the first time in 100 years. Climate change, I tell ya.
  • “…Welcome to the Suck…”

Next Installment…

“Nothin’ else matters in this whole wide world, when you’re in love with a Jersey Girl. Sing sha la la la…”

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