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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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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.