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Alone in the Desert

Sam Mendes tackles the Gulf War in "Jarhead."

11:00 PM, Nov 3, 2005 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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SAM MENDES has the unenviable distinction of having directed one of the three most undeserving Best Picture winners in the last 30 years. In 1999, his directorial debut, American Beauty, won the Oscar and then, immediately, began sliding to oblivion. A paint-by-numbers critique of American middle-class mores, American Beauty was so heavy-handed and obvious as to be insulting even to the elite sophisticates it attempted to flatter. Of course experimentation with marijuana brings happiness. Of course the homophobic, wife-beating Marine father next door is really a closet case. Of course the only well-adjusted adults in the neighborhood are the gay couple down the street.

But American Beauty now gathers dust on the bottom-shelf of cinema history where it sits forlornly next to Kramer vs. Kramer (which, in 1979 won Best Picture over Apocalypse Now) and Ordinary People (which beat out Raging Bull in 1980). Both the box office and the Academy are fickle, unreliable indicators of quality; the DVD shelf never lies.

Yet the story of American Beauty has a happy ending because the movie's success did not ruin its director. After all, it wasn't Sam Mendes's fault that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shoved Oscars into his lap. Since then, his critical acclaim has lessened, but his work has improved. In 2002 he directed The Road to Perdition, a solid outing, and now he has given us Jarhead, which is another step forward for him as a director.

JARHEAD is not a great film--in the pantheon of war movies it ranks no higher than the upper quartile. But it is an interesting and occasionally beautiful film and it is the first attempt to deal seriously with the 1991 Gulf War. (David O. Russell's 1999 effort, Three Kings, was little more than acid-washed, anti-American agitprop.)

Adapted from Anthony Swofford's 2003 memoir of the same name, Jarhead tells Swoff's story beginning, more or less, with his entry into the Marine Corps, where he immediately regrets having signed a contract with the United States military. Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) quickly progresses through boot camp and then, at the urging of Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), begins training for the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon (the STA--or scout/snipers). Here he befriends Allen Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), who becomes his partner, and other members of the platoon. When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, the lot of them are shipped off to Saudi Arabia in preparation for the Gulf War.

Once in Saudi Arabia, Jarhead shifts out of high gear and into neutral, where Mendes idles his engine for the better part of an hour. Swofford and his mates are bored, hot, and generally disgruntled. Much of their energy is spent worrying about the fidelity of their wives and girlfriends back home, with Swoff in particular being pained by the separation from his high school sweetheart, Kristina. Swoff pines for her and has nightmares about losing her affections.

Mendes walks a fine line and for the most part, he avoids the fallacy of imitative form: We understand that the Marines are bored, but are not bored ourselves. However, when Desert Shield becomes Desert Storm, it is a welcome release. Finally Swofford, his platoon, and the movie are swollen with the promise of forward motion.

But it is a false promise. The war is over almost as soon as it begins; Swofford sees some dead bodies, but never fires a shot. The movie's climax comes not in the form of a shootout, but a massive, booze-fueled frat party in the middle of the desert. It's almost a disappointment until you realize that Swoff has been spared the burden of killing; that the labor of merely waiting, pinned between the sand and the sun, is also service. Swofford and his comrades are uncomfortable with the heroes' welcome they receive upon their return to the States; Sam Mendes is not.

IF YOU SENSE a number of similarities between Jarhead and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, you aren't alone. The movies share similar stories, structure, and protagonists. For his part, Mendes is so preoccupied with Kubrick that he opens Jarhead by aping the famous barracks scene from Full Metal Jacket, as if to proclaim, Yes, I am aware of what's going on here. But the two movies diverge once the soldiers go to war; it's first time tragedy, second time farce.

The sense of farce which pervades Jarhead, however, is not what you might expect. The movie is neither antiwar, nor anti-American, nor antimilitary. Jarhead is agnostic on the war, is quite in favor of America, and takes a jaundiced, but loving view of the Corps. Swofford is unhappy with the martial life, but it works well for other characters--all of whom are good men. The guys in Swofford's platoon may rough-house and give each other hard times, but they support one another when it counts. The only real jerk is busted out of the Corps at war's end because of his crudeness and inhumanity. This is a far cry from Kubrick.

But the film which haunts Jarhead isn't Full Metal Jacket; it's Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. Jarhead is about the tedium of waiting in an age of remote, asymmetrical warfare. It's a story about how a disaffected grunt endures--and complains about--boredom and, when the time comes to fight, does so only with the minimal requisite of professionalism. It is difficult to reconcile this portrait with the one painted by Scott's faithful adaptation of Mark Bowden's book, where American soldiers fight in close quarters and at tremendous cost while displaying total professionalism. Surely Swofford and his platoon would have preferred Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 1991 to Somalia in 1993. Jarhead and Black Hawk Down depict two entirely different militaries.

As such, one can't help but wonder what Matt Eversmann or Norm Hooten would make of Anthony Swofford.

THAT FAULT, however, is as much the filmmakers' as it is Swofford's. Bill Broyles, who adapted Jarhead for the screen, does a fine job of depicting Swofford's isolation--to him, being in the Marines is a little like being stranded on a desert island. (Broyles, incidentally, also wrote the excellent script for Cast Away.) But in the process, Broyles makes a number of departures from the book.

Some of these liberties are small and cinematic in nature. For instance, in the book, the Marines spend a day watching war movies on the base; days later the PA announces their deployment to Saudi Arabia, saying "Let's get some, Jarheads!" In the movie, the PA announcer breaks into the film fest and makes the announcement while they're watching Apocalypse Now.

Other changes are more obtrusive. There is a funny scene in the movie where Swofford has been duped into thinking that he has a tryout for a job as the battalion's bugler. Swofford shows up for his audition on the parade grounds and is ordered to make bugle noises with his mouth. The sergeant has him "play" reveille first, and then, in front of the whole company, Stevie Wonder. It's good stuff.

Here's how the episode played out in reality, in Swofford's book:

The sergeant major ordered the battalion to return to the barracks and commence with field day.

The staff sergeant joined me at the flagpole and said, "You still want that bugle job? There isn't a bugle job, you fucking monkey! I could've humiliated you in front of the battalion, called you out there to make bugle noises with your mouth. But I didn't because for some reason I like you."

Why would Broyles and Mendes not merely invent a scene for dramatic purposes, but create a scene out of the exact opposite of how events actually took place? It's hard to say. There's no over-arching motive to all the changes, except perhaps to make the Swofford character more appealing. Yet if there is a charm to the literary version of Jarhead, it's that Swofford is honest enough to commit a memoir in which he's the protagonist, but not the hero. He carouses, malingers, cheats, and fails. By his own telling, he's barely an antihero. But in his cinematic incarnation, he's practically Holden Caulfield.

As an example, consider Swofford's relationship with his girlfriend, Kristina. In the movie, he loves her and stays faithful to her; their relationship is one more casualty of his disillusionment with the Marines. But in his memoir, Swofford sleeps around as often as possible, cheating on Kristina many times before she finally leaves him. In fact, he began regularly fooling around on Kristina before he had even finished barracks-duty training. He writes of this affair, "I enjoyed the sex we shared . . . I loved her, more than I ever did Kristina."

Still, Sam Mendes should be applauded for avoiding the easy mistakes making a movie that to a large extent gets the Marine Corps and the Gulf War right. For this sin, expect Jarhead to be met with disappointment by those hoping for an antiwar, anti-Iraq, anti-Bush thumbsucker. Had Mendes delivered that product, he might have won another Oscar.

Jonathan V. Last is film critic for The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Galley Slaves.