Mendes’ Memoir-Pic Jarhead: What Happened ‘Over There’?

Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, from a screenplay by William Broyles Jr., based on the book by Anthony Swofford, begins with a U.S. Marine Corps basic-training sequence reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), though without a character as profanely hilarious as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (played by former real-life drill instructor R. Lee Ermey), with his imaginative aspersions on every recruit’s sexual propensities. Jarhead, by contrast, is much less funny, primarily because it’s too much in the head of its part-time narrator and full-time protagonist, Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal), a raw recruit who is based on the real-life author of the best-selling memoir that provided the movie’s source material.

Then again, Full Metal Jacket was a belated blast at our long involvement in the Vietnam War, with its wide media coverage, whereas Jarhead is concerned with the heavily censored and barely covered (on the ground, at least) first Gulf War in 1991, which ended disconcertingly, almost as soon as it began, with the forces of Saddam Hussein in full retreat after having invaded and occupied neighboring Kuwait. On this occasion, the first President Bush declined the option of pursuing Saddam’s forces to Baghdad and deposing the Iraqi dictator, for fear that the resultant instability in Iraq would tempt Iran to intervene.

The comparative ease with which the first Gulf War was fought and won, mostly from the air, may have led the second Bush administration to underestimate the difficulties of actually occupying Iraq after its regular armed forces had been vanquished. Still, Jarhead manages to be as much about the second Gulf War as the first, particularly when the Marines deployed in Saudi Arabia get their first glimpses of sabotaged oil wells blazing into the sky. Even back then, there were people who argued that we had gone into the Persian Gulf in the first place only because so many of our sources of oil were located there. But what Mr. Swofford’s book and Mr. Mendes’ movie reveal to us, as if for the first time, is the sheer hell of desert warfare, which is immensely different from the jungle warfare that the U.S. military had waged in Vietnam. There is thus inescapably a touch of absurdism in Jarhead, achieved by the grotesque contrast between the temporal brevity of the conflict and the emotional intensity with which it was fought.

In one scene, the Marines are energized and inspired by watching a screening of the Wagnerian helicopter flights in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Walter Murch, the editor of Jarhead, was also the editor of the Coppola classic. Ironically, then, Apocalypse Now—with its intended anti–Vietnam War message—eventually served to make a later generation of Marines more warlike and bloodthirsty. So much for the benign, pacificism-enhancing effects on audiences of violent war movies.

Yet even in terms of its war-is-hell subgenre, Jarhead is less about the dubious “issues” involved than the powerful feelings generated by male camaraderie. When Swoff is teamed up with Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) in a two-man sniper unit, in which one man scouts and the other shoots, he comes to realize that despite Troy’s criminal record as a drug dealer, he is the only politically sophisticated member of the platoon. Troy keeps asking his comrades why they’re fighting this war, and he’s the only one who refuses to take the experimental drugs issued by the U.S. military as anti-biological-warfare agents because they’ve never been adequately tested, and he doesn’t relish the thought of becoming a guinea pig, thank you. Mr. Sarsgaard brings his accustomed charismatic conviction to the role from the first moment we spot him in the group. I found myself wondering why he hasn’t been cast as the leading man long ago. Perhaps that extra “a” in his name makes it seem too eccentric for star billing, or perhaps it’s too close to that of the excellent Swedish actor, Stellan Scarsgård. Then, too, perhaps it’s the authority he brings to serious, even villainous parts that makes him seem too valuable an acting resource to be wasted on vapid lead characters.

Not that Mr. Gyllenhaal is chopped liver in his own role as the unusually introspective Marine with a fondness for reading Camus (and he, too, is afflicted with an extra “a” in his name, as is his marvelously talented and sexy sister, Maggie). There is something almost perpetually anonymous about Mr. Gyllenhaal’s face that makes him the perfect Everyman for projects like Jarhead. Between the two of them, Mr. Gyllenhaal’s Swoff and Mr. Sarsgaard’s Troy manage to climb the highest emotional peaks of male bonding, all the way to the grave.

Jarhead is the first war movie—and perhaps even the first movie, period—to present masturbation as the consuming activity it is for young males, in or out of the service. The problem for Swoff and his fellow Marines is exacerbated in the sexually barren sands of Saudi Arabia and Iraq. For the first time ever, we see our “boys” so inflamed with paranoid sexual fantasies about the girlfriends they left behind and what they’re doing in their spare time that they become fanatical worshippers of any girlie photo or porno film they can obtain from their buddies back home. In one scene, we’re shown a graphic sexual scene involving the wife of one of the Marines and a strange man. I got the impression that the wife may have sent the homemade porno flick to her husband as an elaborate “Dear John” letter, inasmuch as she slithers in for a close-up at the end of her video performance. Despite his anguished humiliation, the Marine insists on looking at the porno flick again and finally has to be dragged away from the tormenting spectacle.

For his part, Swoff gets a more sedate “Dear John” missive from his girlfriend, and he is devastated by all the code words in the letter signaling betrayal. It remains to be seen how receptive civilian audiences will be to these revolutionary images of sexually vulnerable servicemen and their serious discussions of whether one gets the best result by using his left hand or right hand to achieve orgasmic release. In traditional war movies, our boys tend to be stoically sexless. But since World War II—the last war perceived by all as a just war—there has been a left-wing backlash against the alleged carnal abuse of Third World women, especially in Vietnam, by our oversexed troops. Even during World War II, there was circulating in England an unflattering phrase for the American troops stationed there for the eventual invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe: “Overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

The real-life Anthony Swofford was a 20-year-old third-generation enlistee when he was sent to the deserts of Saudi Arabia to fight in the first Gulf War. He writes: “Like most good and great Marines, I hated the Corps. I hated being a Marine because more than all of the things in the world I wanted to be—smart, famous, oversexed, drunk, fucked, high, alone, famous, smart, known, understood, loved, forgiven, oversexed, drunk, high, smart, sexy—more than all of those things, I was a Marine. A jarhead.”

The title of the book comes from the slang term for the shape of a Marine’s head after he has received a military haircut. The process was shown at greater length in Full Metal Jacket, but again the emphasis in that film was on the group and not the individual, whereas in Jarhead it is on the individual writer-to-be seeking his new identity within the group. What he finds instead is a palpable fear that insulates him from the others at first, but later solidifies his ties with them. All in all, there is much more inaction than action in the film, and this too may not go over too well with violence junkies. However, this is what war is and always has been—not the feature-length spectacles of more efficient but less realistic screenplays.

There is more than a little sadism involved in the unit’s rites of initiation, and the film also acknowledges the many dissenting voices of minorities grateful to the Marine Corps for the opportunity it has given them. Most prominent among the latter is Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), who loves the corps for the life and purpose it has given him. Yet there’s also a somewhat hidden subtext to the film in the self-serving cynicism of commanders like Lieutenant Colonel Kazinski (Chris Cooper). In all respects, Jarhead is straight from the horse’s mouth. See it.

The Women

Rodrigo García’s Nine Lives, from his own screenplay, unfolds as a remarkable tour de force consisting of nine intermittently related stories of women in crisis. What makes the project truly prodigious is the writer-director’s collaboration with his cinematographer, Xavier Pérez Grobet, and a closely knit production team to render each of the nine stories in one single, unbroken take, without a single scenic detour or cutaway shot for its own sake.

The nine stories are far from being equally compelling, but the cumulative effect of the rigorously controlled and purposive camera style adds up in the end to a collective portrait of womankind that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Curiously, the film begins with an overly familiar note of special pleading, with inmate Sandra (Elpidia Carrillo) mopping seemingly endless prison corridors with absurdist futility as she fends off the advances of a corrupt prison guard. Sandra lives only for the visits of her child, but on the one visit we witness, the phone connection is dead, and she must communicate mutely through the soundproof glass. This drives her berserk, and Sandra is forced back into her cell with a cruel indifference to her feelings. There seems to be no point to this one-sided tale of persecution beyond the opportunity for exhibitionist camera work that those Kafkaesque prison corridors present.

After this problematic opening, the second story, of Diana (Robin Wright Penn), turns out to be the strongest and most tantalizing of the nine. It takes place entirely in a supermarket, where Diana catches a glimpse of an old lover and then maneuvers her cart so that she can bump into him “accidentally.” Though they’ve both been married to other people for a long time, and though Diana is visibly pregnant, the romantic sparks still fly between them as they recall what was and what might have been.

Holly (Lisa Gay Hamilton) introduces an element of interracial mystery in her confrontation with a stepfather who was possibly abusive. Like the first episode, this third story doesn’t give us enough information to understand the nature of Holly’s grievances. Sonia (Holly Hunter) recoils from her boyfriend when he reveals a painfully personal secret to their closest friends, who are clearly doing better than they. Teenager Samantha (Amanda Seyfreid) tries to keep the peace between her combative parents—and in the process of flitting back and forth between them, she gives the camera ample opportunity to vary its angles and focal lengths.

Lorna (Amy Brenneman) attends the funeral of her ex-husband’s wife, who has committed suicide. While comforting her ex in a secluded room in the funeral parlor, she allows herself to be seduced by him. What is odd and original about the seduction is that it’s achieved through sign language by the husband, who is clearly handicapped (though Lorna is not), opening up all sorts of speculation about their prior relationship. I can’t remember ever seeing sign language used in this manner, except possibly in Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). As it is, this is the only sex act consummated in the film.

Meanwhile, Ruth (Sissy Spacek) comes close to committing adultery in a motel room. When the police suddenly arrive to arrest a woman in the neighboring cabin, Ruth watches the events unfold and then decides, when her own partner returns to their cabin, not to go through with her escapade. Camille (Kathy Baker) faces the dire reality of a mastectomy while her husband tries manfully to console and reassure her; hers is a one-take performance with a vengeance. Finally, we see Maggie (Glenn Close) taking her young daughter (the omnipresent Dakota Fanning) to what looks like a picnic in a cemetery as the film comes to an end morbidly, resignedly, but still hopefully.

The actresses embodying the nine titular lives perform beyond the call of duty, but the men—played by Stephen Dillane, William Fichtner, Jason Isaacs, Joe Mantegna, Ian McShane, Aidan Quinn and Miguel Sandoval—are hardly mere appendages. The excellent cast also includes Molly Parker, Mary Kay Place and Sydney Tamiia Poitier.

As uneven as the film itself is, Nine Lives reverberates far beyond its self-imposed boundaries to provide morally and artistically stimulating entertainment for the thoughtful moviegoer. There are certainly limitations to the single-take strategy, but Mr. García has avoided most of its pitfalls by not spelling out all the details of his characters’ motivations, though he occasionally pays a price in vagueness and uncertainty.

Mizoguchi!

BAMcinématek at the Brooklyn Academy of Music will present A Moving Camera: Kenji Mizoguchi from Oct. 31 to Nov. 22. The series includes seven features by the much-praised Japanese director: Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Osaka Elegy (1936), The Life of Oharu (1952), Sisters of the Gion (1936), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) and Street of Shame (1956).

In his three decades as a director, Mizoguchi made more than 80 films. He died in 1956. Call 718-636-4100 for more details on the screenings.