Jarhead (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
"Fuck politics. We're here. The rest is bullshit."
--- one Jarhead headed to the front ---
Jarhead is a movie about the experiences of a single member of the U.S. Marine Corps in the First Gulf War, or whatever the official name is for the war fought over Kuwait between the allies and Saddam Hussein. The story was originally written as a first person memoir by Anthony Swofford, a marine who was actually there and remains the central character in both the book and the movie.
It is, in fact, a very good movie which does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to allow somebody with first-hand experience of a unique situation to share what he knows with the rest of us. In at least two respects, a movie cannot really do this as well as a book. First, a film is limited by the inherent compression required in condensing a long story into a couple of hours of representative scenes. Second, a movie adds a barrier between the diarist and his audience - the interpretation of a director and his staff - while a book like Swofford's best-seller is basically a direct conversation between him and the reader.
In this case, however, both of the cinematic disadvantages were minimized.
On the other hand, a movie has advantages over the printed word. To be sure, it is dramatic to read about a platoon of marines standing in an oozy mixture of sand and oil while several massive oil wells burn in their sight-line, some of them a just few hundred yards away. It is quite another experience, a far more vivid one, to see that unimaginable image on screen in a night scene lit only by the flames spewing out of the ground, punctuated by fried Iraqi carcasses floating around in the ooze. That is a unique image which very few men actually saw first-hand, but which is now indelibly etched into the brains of millions of people who have seen and will see Jarhead. Because of this movie, I was there. I saw hell while I was still alive, just as Anthony Swofford did.
About 60% of the film's reviews were positive, and that percentage should have been even higher because many of the negative ones ignored what the movie accomplished and complained about what the movie did not accomplish. If the film had actually done what these reviewers suggested, it would have been a far worse film, so it's difficult for me to accept these as valid negatives! The New York Times wrote, "Jarhead is a movie that walks up to some of the most urgent and painful issues of our present circumstance, clears its throat loudly and says nothing." Another reviewer wrote "Puzzlingly hollow .... Although its portrayal of war as tedious hell scores points for novelty, the lack of a discernable point of view considerably limits the film's impact." Do you see what the reviewers are really saying? They are arguing that the film had a great chance to rail against America's militarism, or against the Bush family, or against the oil-based world economy and did not. In essence, they are saying that the author should not have stuck to the things he knew and was in a unique position to know, and should instead have devoted some of that time to things he knew nothing about, and should have offered liberal sermons like the ones found on the editorial page of the New York Times. In essence, those comments suggest that the author should not have told the unvarnished truth, but should have earned a positive review with lots of crazy, wild-eyed speculation like Syriana, or perhaps with unresearched disinformation and just plain stupidity like The Constant Gardener. This sort of criticism was by no means restricted to liberal ideologues. The right-wingers found fault with Swofford as well, and criticized him for his lack of patriotism and his inability to keep secrets which should have remained among the band of brothers. Although the screenplay was written by one Marine from a memoir written by another, one reviewer said, "This surreal display of depravity ... practically spits on anyone who serves in the Armed Forces."
One lesson I have learned in life is that if you get nasty comments from both the right and the left, you have probably done a very good job. Such is the case here. Despite what the political nutburgers wanted from it, Jarhead is simply not a political movie. The typical political movie operates like a Presidential press secretary. It starts with a point-of-view and then relates some facts to support that position, while ignoring any facts which tend to undermine it. Since a political movie is fictional, it feels free to create its own facts, some of them implausible if not outright impossible. Jarhead is a different beast entirely. The movie version of Jarhead tells the story of the war in the way Hemingway would have told it - straightforward, declarative, a first-person account in which the soldier knows about nothing for sure except the things he sees for himself. The narrator tries to share his eyesight with us, not his insight. Because his story is true and the world is complicated, some of the facts he relates will support our preconceptions, while others will undermine them. Without a specific ideology, the marine's experiences offer plenty of facts for you to incorporate into your world-view or ignore as you see fit. He is a man who trained intensely to become a hard-ass sniper, then goes off to a war and never fires a shot. The soldiers spend more time posturing for reporters than they do soldiering. His platoon comes upon an entire highway filled with cars and people - presumably escaping civilians - all fried to a crisp by American airpower. The grunts call the ubiquitous fried bodies "crispy critters." I find that there are plenty of lessons to be learned from these facts, and that any editorial comments would certainly be superfluous and would probably be simplistic as well.
At least one reviewer (Mike Ward, richmond.com) had the right perspective on the relationship between the film's strict adherence to the unvarnished facts, and the reactions of other critics. He wrote, "Some criticize Jarhead for ambivalence and ambiguity. But that's what Swofford's experience was about."
In fact, that's what life is about in general.
And art, for that matter.
The way I look at it, everyone has opinions about the war, and neither filmmakers nor USMC corporals have any better perspective than I can form on my own about the geopolitics. Frankly, they really have nothing to offer me in that regard, and simply stating their opinions will certainly not cause me to change mine. After all, as the man says, "Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one." But if they can show me something of which I was previously unaware, or picture sights I could not easily have imagined on my own, then they do have something to offer me, and may even change my opinion when I consider the meaning of what I have just seen. For a job well done in this regard, I say "Bravo!"
The film was nominated for no Oscars at all. I believe it deserved to be nominated for at least two. Peter Sarsgaard not only deserved to be nominated as the best supporting actor but, judging from the results, deserved to win it. (George Clooney won.) As for cinematographer Roger Deakins, well, he's a five-time Oscar nominee, and this is arguably his very best work.
If I had to be picky about the film, I'd say that it really does have a major weakness, although I don't know how it could have avoided it. There are some parts of this film that can put you to sleep faster than a Hugh Hudson film festival. One of the central themes of the film is that this war was not so much hell as limbo. Desert Shield, the part of the action where troops amassed in the desert to stop Saddam's forward progress and to lay the groundwork for an attack, went on for months in which the soldiers had nothing to do except sit around the desert and wait for orders. Desert Storm, the actual war, was over in four days and Swofford never even fired his rifle. Because the film tries to tell the truth, and the truth was about guys sitting around with nothing to do, the creative team gets caught in a dilemma. It can either portray that boredom or lie. It chooses to tell the truth by trying to capture the "feel" of Swofford's days in the desert, but those days mostly "feel" boring. Let's be honest, soul-destroying boredom rarely makes for a compelling cinematic experience. The script told the truth, and it chose valid artistic expression over contrivance, but boredom and ambivalence are not really very interesting or engaging, by definition. That's why most films choose to lie instead.
As one perceptive Guardian reader wrote, "Fantastic direction, superb acting, a killer soundtrack, witty dialogue, amazing cinematography, first class editing and oodles of style couldn't, alas, make up for the dreadfully weak narrative ..." I don't know if I agree with his specific choice of the word "weak," but I agree with his sentiment fully. It's a brilliant film in which we, like the Jarheads, await something which never happens.
I am therefore painted into a corner, just as the filmmakers were. If I tell the truth, I may steer many of you away from an outstanding film. As I see it, the truth is that Jarhead is an excellent movie, an honest battlefield memoir brought to life by a scriptwriter who made good choices, and a director and cinematographer with brilliant visual imagination. But it is also a film that may infuriate you if you have strong political leanings in either direction, or if you want it all to get tied together in a neat point-of-view. It may bore you at times because General Sherman, if he lived today, would say "war is limbo," and limbo is less cinematic than hell.
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