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14 March 2006

Jarhead (2005)

Jake Gyllenhaal (Swofford), Peter Sarsgaard (Troy), Jamie Foxx (Sykes)

Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty)

From IMDB: "Based on former Marine Anthony Swofford's best- selling 2003 book about his pre- Desert Storm experiences in Saudi Arabia and about his experiences fighting in Kuwait."

Swofford as Hero

Although based on the memoirs of an actual Gulf War soldier, Jarhead's Anthony Swofford is a character comprised of three conflicting facets. Super Swofford, the hero, is the third that rises above much of the jingoistic clamor. He reads Camus. He believes in his girlfriend's fidelity. He throws up at the sight of crispy dead bodies. He possesses enough self-awareness to narrate his own tale - cynicism, self-mockery and all - without the lock-step mentality of some of his Marine cohorts. He is afraid and makes mistakes, but he stands fast and endures his obligations. He is our window into an unfamiliar world of secrets, rituals, traditions, violence, and a long, long history.

Swofford as Barbarian

However, our seemingly civilized guide is misleading, leaving us lost in an unfamiliar world. What happened to the boy who read? He was replaced by a near-mindless automaton acting only for the diversions of sexual gratification and violence - two primal releases that are offered, on numerous occasions, as synonyms. His motives are based not on thought but on survival. After a while, he has no sense of obligation to those he invited to partake of his story - the audience. Lost in a haze of desperation, fatigue, boredom, loneliness, and fear, he cannot serve as his own rational guide, let alone lead us through his story. He gives himself over, almost totally, to the institution of the Marines. In the arms of the Corps, thinking is not so very important.

Swofford as Everyman

Following his return to the States, Swofford returns to himself as an altered version of the young man he was. This typical soldier's story arc attempts to reconciles the hero and the barbarian - the thinking man and the grunt - just as the soldier attempts to make that same reconciliation within himself. Images, friendships, new comrades, and lingering physical and psychological affects hamper the hero's need to suppress the barbarian in a civilized world, but does he really want to? What man, when faced with the opportunity to enjoy all of the forbidden pleasures of his youthful, barbarian days, would not do so again despite the dangers?

Mendes and THE BIG POINT(S)

As with American Beauty, director Sam Mendes does not demonstrate a concise enough vision to fully realize whichever of the six or seven different BIG POINTS he intended to make. Is Swofford a hero, barbarian, or everyman? Does the distinction matter in a time of war? Is Sykes a thinking man when, in the midst of burning oil fields, the magnificent Jamie Foxx's face reveals so much confusion and dissatisfaction regarding their assignment and his role in the conflict? Or has Sykes been duped by the fervor and patriotism of the Corps, as one could possibly interpret his speech about why he loves being a Marine? What is the value of a purposeful life, such as with Sarsgaard's haunting and nuanced Corporal Troy, even when that purpose is killing? And most importantly, are soldiers defined by their mastubatory practices, their latent homosexual fantasies, or their life-long fidelity to idealized weaponry?

(For more on the sex thang and other issues, go read Pacze Moj's review.)

Granted, memoirs are the self-centered ramblings of any given individual, with all of the intricacies of perspective, reality, digressions, and superfluous characters. When telling one's own story, the BIG POINT can become lost in a "forest for the trees" sort of fashion. But Mendes, as this film's storyteller, should have known better. If Swofford made a point in his memoirs, Mendes failed to translate it to the screen. In trying so hard to present timely intricacies and depth, he lost worthwhile opportunities to bring the audience to his (or Swofford's) conclusion of choice.

Seeing this film during today's political climate and in the midst of Iraq's continued disintegration, and seeing this film in the company of my two ex-Marine parents, served to cloud my experience with additional layers of complexity. Without a sure sense of direction and purpose from Mendes, I concluded the cinematic version of what could have been a very rich narrative with only feelings of muddled indifference.

Anonymous Pacze Moj said...

Great observation about the three Swoffords. His character's lack of identity may a big part of the film's lack of identity: Half a dozen BIG POINTS signifying nothing.


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