The movie Jarhead (Universal) is unusually faithful to Anthony Swofford’s memoir of life in Marine Corps during the first Gulf War—which isn’t entirely a good thing. It’s a terrific book, but it needs something more than a literal translation. Swofford depicts the abuse and dehumanization of Marines in boot camp; then he shifts to their long, long wait in the barren Saudi Arabian desert—in killing heat, with no visible enemy, with the likely prospect of a poison gas attack, and with no booze to lighten the psychological load. The author’s near-delirium finally merges with his outrage at what his fellow soldiers have become: at best desensitized, at worst sadistic. Published in 2003, the book ends on a bitter note. The men who “spread good news about war and warriors … never fought,” Swofford writes. “They are liars and cheats and they gamble with your freedom and your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the reputation of your country.”
The director, Sam Mendes, and the screenwriter, William Broyles Jr., showed a lot of guts in taking on a book like Jarhead: War movies generally build to combat and explosive release, but Swofford barely engaged with—he barely even saw—the Iraqis, who were largely taken out from the air. As an accomplished theater director, Mendes probably approached Jarhead as a kind of martial Waiting for Godot: The characters refer to the Marine Corps as “the Suck,” which suggests a lot of things, among them a corrosive, Beckett-like vacuum. And Mendes and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins, create some surreal stage pictures—of soldiers against a sky turned a malignant charcoal by distant burning oil wells, of the protagonist sitting beside charred remains of men around what once was a campfire, an image out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The problem is that Mendes—who made the glib Oscar winner American Beauty and the ludicrously overinflated Road to Perdition—is a showy director, and when he tries to get all inward and psychological he’s not very expressive. Jarhead feels detached, and the internal turmoil of its protagonist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) lacks urgency—even with first-person narration to fill in some of the gaps. The basic-training section plays like a humanist but diluted Full Metal Jacket, with Jamie Foxx as the sergeant commanding his men essentially to merge with their weapons. (“Repeat after me. This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine. Without my rifle, I am nothing. Without me, my rifle is nothing …”) Foxx supplies energy and charisma, but apart from taunting his men with visions of their wives and girlfriends cheating on them, his material isn’t fresh.
Jarhead’s most astonishing (and original) scene is the one that piggybacks on another war film, Apocalypse Now. The Marines watch the movie and whoop with glee during the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” bombardment—a scene that is, of course, a masterpiece of ambivalence: You’re supposed to be appalled by the destruction of what appears to be a peaceful village, yet fired up by the spectacle, the whoosh, the smell of napalm in the morning. But these men are only turned on. They’ve been broken down and rebuilt as killing machines. When Swofford’s buddy, Troy (played by Peter Sarsgaard), is denied the chance to take out an Iraqi, he goes mad and attacks a senior officer. He needs the release.
As Jarhead’s psychological casualty, Sarsgaard is fascinating. He’s a slightly opaque actor, which means you’re never quite sure if he’s ironic or serious—so when he blows up here it’s a shocking moment. He plays his big scene with Dennis Haysbert, better than I’ve ever seen him as a major who savors his power, who speaks with relish about the texture of the bowel movement he just dumped into a latrine that Swofford is forced to empty. Gyllenhaal does everything right but is a notch too recessive. He acts as if he knows he’s going to be supplying a voice-over to spell out what he’s thinking.
To drive home the obscenity of war, the movie needed something like the sequence in the book in which a fellow Marine adopts an Iraqi corpse and systematically mutliates it for several days—until Swofford finally makes off with the mangled pile of flesh and buries it. But there’s nothing that strong in Jarhead—and nothing anywhere near as potent as the opening of David O. Russell’s post-Desert Storm movie Three Kings, itself a kind of mini-Beckett play in which a soldier (Mark Wahlberg) shoots an Iraqi who might or might not be surrendering. Three Kings is fictional, obviously, and Mendes and Broyles were bound by the facts of Swofford’s life. But the violence in Three Kings was visceral, whereas Jarhead’s never penetrates the blood-brain barrier. It’s locked away in its narrator’s jarhead.