Something I like to do before writing a review is avoid writing it. Before sitting down to write this particular piece about Sam Mendes’ war epic, JARHEAD, I made a quick stop at a local sandwich shop for a large club. Whilst waiting in line, I paused Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” on my iPod to listen in on the conversation taking place between the young, male sandwich maker and his customer counterpart. The sandwich maker had just seen JARHEAD the night before and he was very vexed by the experience. You see, he had spent his hard earned sandwich making money on this war flick after not having seen anything on the big screen for a very long time. Imagine his disappointment when he sat through an entire film about the gulf war, the first one, and didn’t get to see any war. I’m paraphrasing here, as I don’t make it a habit to write down everything I hear other people say, but his complaint went something like, “You just watch these guys drift around in the desert forever and nothing happens. Finally it seems like something’s going to happen, they’re gonna get to fight and then nothing. No one fires a single shot.” I snickered silently to myself. Hmmm, I wondered if the sandwich maker would eventually connect his frustration to the infinitely more frustrating experience it must have been to actually be a marine in the Gulf War marching aimlessly through the desert and never getting to take the shot you’ve trained so thoroughly for, or if he’d figure out that his frustration may very well have been the desired effect of the film to begin with. Then | got distracted and wondered if I wanted mayo or mustard.
In many ways, JARHEAD is not that different from other war films. There is a loud, foul drill sergeant at boot camp; there are strapping, young men horsing around for no reason in particular, other than having pent up sexual energy; there are familiar character types like the unbalanced loose cannon and the quiet, uncomfortable farm boy. What does differentiate JARHEAD from films it is quite clearly influenced by, like Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET, is that these soldiers’ war never comes. There are no ultra-violent, intensely choreographed battle sequences in Sam Mendes’ take on the war movie. Instead the soldiers simulate warfare, play football and have drunken parties (thank you whoever you are who decided Jake Gyllenhaal should wear only a Santa Claus hat in this particular scene). Then they make themselves look useful and sound like appreciative, dedicated soldiers for the media cameras. By the time they’re told the war is on, you may find yourself also excited and anxious for their piece of the action. What they get is more walking through the desert and what they came across made me nauseous enough to not want a large-scale attack scene anyway. I guess the sandwich maker has a larger bloodlust than I.
Not having the bloodbath to distract us or shatter our naïve impression of how violent war genuinely is, leaves us with very little other than the characters themselves to focus on. Whereas Mendes’ suggestion that these expectations may in fact be what is actually naïve, none of his characters are developed further than boys who think they’re men and want to kill and get back to their girlfriends and wives. Even the central character, Anthony Swofford (played by Gyllenhaal and based on the author who wrote the book the screenplay is based upon) is only given about two minutes of quick flashbacks, giving us some incite into his family history and sex life, but not enough to give him any clear storyline to carry the film forward and home. And though cinematographer, Roger Deakins, frames and lights everything in a beautiful yellow-orange haze and editor, Walter Murch, keeps the pacing steady as a marine’s march, the characters come off as a bunch of apes in a cage. That may have been what Mendes intended but it isn’t always compelling or engaging. They are detached but so are we.
By testing our patience with JARHEAD, Mendes leaves us frustrated and wanting some much-needed release. In addition, he points out that the very disturbing need for action exhibited in these men is inherent in you, me and sandwich makers everywhere.