War films often become tiresome, as war itself is often described as having long periods of dullness punctuated by moments of frenetic activity. War is never experienced through the same lens, and is a different experience from one platoon to another. This distinction seems to be mirrored in the life cycle of the war-film genre.
“Jarhead” (Universal Pictures), starring Jake Gyllenhaal (“The Day After Tomorrow”), Peter Sarsgaard (“Garden State”), Chris Cooper (“Seabiscuit”) and Jamie Foxx, is the new film adapted from ex-marine Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the first Gulf War, and is a final assurance that both director Sam Mendes and Swofford will be conferred canonical status in both war literature and film.
Where “Jarhead” succeeds is in its deft balance of poignancy, pathos, humor and subtle commentary. Undoubtedly, the death toll in Iraq reaching 2,000 this past week brings prescience to both Operation Desert Storm of 10 years ago and the release of “Jarhead.” What makes this film so important in its proximity to current events is its ability to rupture the disconnect between civilians and soldiers, foreign war zones and domestic peace and the media portrayal of actual events.
The meaning of the Marine Corps nickname “jarhead” is explained early in the film: the marines’ crew-cuts look like a jar top on their heads. The “jar” implies that the marine is an empty vessel filled with conflicting desires for primal bloodshed; fraternity and participation in something larger than the individual; machismo; and a host of other amorphous concepts that constitute service in the corps.
After seeing the film, viewers do not leave feeling empty; rather, they are filled with the generic expectations of what ostensibly makes a “good” war film. There are images of oil wells spewing fire and black smoke so thick the midday desert sun is rendered invisible. A parade of Hummers soaked in the desert’s mirage drive toward combat as the emotions of the soldiers are washed in the propulsive rhythm of drums and rap music. The tension builds and the thrill of the coming battle stews in the mouth of the marine and the viewer. You almost crave the violence.
Mendes and Swofford have admirably returned to the concept of film and history as subjective meditation rather than fulfillment of already formed expectations.
Jarhead opens nationwide Friday, Nov. 4.