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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Jarhead" (2006)

I used to know someone stationed in Iraq. I would get her emails forwarded to me through another friend and they would always be these long, descriptive letters about her activities, the other people in her unit and various bombings and injuries that occurred miles away from her. Never once did she write about being in heavy combat. She and everyone else in her unit seemed to just be waiting for something to happen, almost stuck in what would normally be the first half of your average war movie. To the best of my knowledge, she never engaged in heavy combat. She just did what she could do to pass the time in the 100+-degree heat. “Jarhead’ is about that same kind of experience.

It is not a movie about the horrors of war, but about the desire to be a part of it. It is not a war movie that has any kind of agenda regarding our current war, yet in a round-about way, it still makes a statement. It is not a war movie that tries to out-do the opening battle sequence of “Saving Private Ryan,” yet I still felt excited and moved by it. “Jarhead” is about the extras in the background of every war movie you’ve seen, the guys who don’t get to go into the thick of it and emerge heroic. It’s about the need to feel necessary and appreciated.

The movie centers on one particular soldier named Swoff (author Anthony Swofford’s nickname), played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Like many marines, he has a girlfriend back home who might—might—remain faithful. He meets other marines with backgrounds we’ve seen before in many war movies: One whose wife is pregnant, one skiddish-looking marine who could foil a plan at the drop of a hat and one whose wife has definitely cheated on him and moved on. Swoff gets partnered with Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) as a two-man sniper unit. They all take their orders from Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) and eventually get stationed in Kuwait, circa 1989.

Their training continues. The press shows up to interview the soldiers, who reluctantly admit their fears. They do what they can to pass the time while also holding parties around Christmas, watching movies, cleaning toilets and waiting patiently for a letter from home. Of course, they have been trained to become killers and defenders to the point where it has become as natural an instinct as eating and sleeping, but the inactivity begins to take its toll on them. They want to fight. They want to feel worth something.

“Jarhead” is an anti War Film, but not an anti-war film. It doesn’t waste your time telling you what you probably already know (war is hell). The movie’s one major battle sequence depicts not a series of blood and dirt flying into the camera, but a simple errand for one soldier to go and retrieve a battery pack so he can make a call. The movie mainly centers not on what harsh reality these men will venture into, but what they have left behind and what will be gone when they eventually return home.

Director Sam Mendes does a remarkable job of depicting the impatience these men feel, but also the frustration of not even having anything to separate this war from any other. At one point a helicopter flies over the platoon blaring out a Doors song, to which Swoff replies, “That’s a Vietnam song. Can’t we get our own damn music?” Mendes further underscores Swoff’s plight by making the desert look positively beautiful, prompting Sgt. Sykes to admit to Swoff that one of the main reasons he keeps working in the Marines is to see unusual sights, such as oil burning in the night sky.

Some have expressed disappointment at the amount of inactivity in the film. To me, it is something of a triumph for a film such as this to get made at a time when we have become conditioned to expect certain conventions of your average War Film. “Jarhead” expresses that no matter what you do with the time served in the Marines, no matter how little you see in terms of carnage and horror when stationed in a war-torn country, the experience remains a part of you.

They want the time to matter, they want a story to tell when they return and they want the experience to count for something because of the sacrifices they made in order to be a part of it. They sacrifice a piece of themselves in order to become trained killers and defenders, but what happens if they can’t get that part of themselves back? Being stationed out in the middle of nowhere with little excitement may not make for an exciting letter home to their friends and family, but it’s all they’ve got and could very well be all the better for it.

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