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Friday, November 04, 2005

Jarhead

I'll admit it. I am in love with Jake Gyllenhaal. I have been since his Donnie Darko and Moonlight Mile days, so there was no question I would see Jarhead. It was just a matter of when. Today Jarhead and Chicken Little both opened and I anticipated a horde of mothers and children swarming the Essex Outlet Cinemas at the first showing, so, naturally, I gave the bird to the bird and settled in to revisit the first Iraqi war with Jake, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Collins, Dennis Haysbert, and Jamie Foxx even though I have never liked war movies.

Well, this is definitely not your father's war movie. There is no John Wayne swaggering across the sand dunes, single-handedly saving his whole battalion. Instead, it is a thoughtful, multi-layered, intelligent drama, bordering on near-documentary. It is sure to generate plenty of cocktail party conversation and can easily be embraced by both blue states and red states as it highlights both the best of the military as well as its' worst. The politics behind the war itself are negligible. There is barely a mention of what brought these soldiers to the Middle East other than a brief news snippet of a young(er) Dan Rather telling his tv audience that "President Bush is sending troops to Iraq in search of Sadam Hussein", illustrating how little things have changed in the last fifteen years.

This is a story about a handful of young marines who naively deplane in the Kuwaiti desert thinking they will be in and out in less than two weeks. To them, this is a grand exercise, a reward after completing their grueling basic training. Instead they find themselves trapped for months on end in the barren, arid sands where boredom becomes their biggest enemy.

We see the flaws in our military through the constant lack of working equipment and the obvious mismanagement of troops (575,000 deployed to Iraq with nothing to do but sit idle for months), but we also see the heroism and the actual patriotism that lives in the hearts of these young men. It is rare that patriotism is portrayed as anything but corny, but in Jarhead it is given a face in Sarsgaard's Troy, who lives for this assignment. To him, the Marines offer a hope for a better life and a reason to live. He is also the most "civilized" of the crew, sensitive to the feelings of his comrades when the rest of the men are wrapped up only in the superficiality of saying and doing "manly man" things, which usually means humiliating one another or ridiculing their girlfriends or wives back home.

These women, who we don't see, play a key role in how the psyches of the men at this (almost) war function, and their constant fear that the women are betraying their boyfriends or husbands gnaws at the men to a point of desperation. As Gyllenhall's Swofford reminds us, there is a protocol for when a soldier is sick, a protocol for when a soldier is wounded, and even a protocol for when a soldier is dead, but when you go crazy you are on your own. And there is a lot of craziness in Jarhead, most generated out of boredom, frustration, or fear. A festive Christmas party includes a memorable scene of Gyllenhaal/Swofford dancing in the nude with only a Santa hat covering his little soldier. Another involves Swofford breaking down his rifle and reassembling it before threatening to use it to shoot one of his fellow Marines, Brian Geraghty's Fergus, and then turning the gun on himself, begging Fergus to kill him. But, still, despite, these "slips" Swofford is a Marine, and he proves he can perform when the time comes.

The war, though short, is portrayed in a way I've never seen before. It places the viewer as much in the picture as possible, so much so that when the soldiers are covered in oil raining from the burning oil wells, one almost feels the same greasy coating our men do. "Our men". By this time, writer Sam Mendes (American Beauty) has done such a remarkable job that we can't help but feel that these characters are real and "our" friends, even Staff Sargeant Sykes, who, as played by Fox, shows his range from tough-as-nails to downright friendly guy next door. To see them placed in a series of nightmarish settings ratchets up the suspense with every new encounter. Even the secondary characters are three dimensional, having shared bits and pieces of their lives outside of the Marine Corps, so it is impossible not to hold your breath when it seems they are in harm's way. The cinematography in these scenes is especially intense. The skies blaze or are eerily blackened, the ground shimmers as if alive, and every sand dune or abandoned vehicle literally shines as if calling attention to itself as a potential danger. It really elevates the over-all quality of the movie's story and the viewer's experience.

I'm not about to tell you any of the details of the individual characters' fates, but Jarhead does just that. When the war is over the story moves back to America and picks up some time later, revealing tiny glimpses of where and what has become of the squad. Perhaps this is the most jarring of all because it is difficult to mesh the idea of the heroes of Desert Storm now anonymously stocking shelves in a grocery store or droning on in a corporate board room. Whether you are pro or anti-war, you somehow come away from Jarhead feeling that these men deserved better when they returned home. Maybe that is the real message of the movie.

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