They encounter a caravan of Arabian traders who want to complain that someone has shot three of their camels, and now men who counted on riding haveg to walk. A tense moment that underscores the easiness of violence passes, and the soldiers walk on, straining to hear the movements of an enemy underneath the howl of the wind. Where they are going, we are never told. If they have an objective, it's not clear they know it. They march up a berm of sand, and from its peak discover the remains of a highway on the other side, a highway filled with burned-out cars and trucks, charred drivers still at the wheel, the blackened corpses of passengers still erect in their seats. This nightmarish scene is the signature passage in Sam Mendes' visually brilliant Jarhead, a film that will haunt viewers' dreams for weeks without quite ever entirely clarifying its intentions or breaking new ground.
Adapted for the screen by William Broyles from the book by Anthony Swofford, Jarhead is the story of one Marine's hellish experiences in the first Gulf War. The son of a troubled Vietnam vet, Tony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) can't even explain why he enlists instead of going to college. Well educated and middle class, he's not like some of the other men in his unit, who are grasping a ladder rung to step up out of poverty. Swofford is looking for something he can't name, some way to understand the meaning of existence. In the sands of Saudi Arabia he finds a kindred spirit in Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), the man who becomes his scout and sniper partner. Troy seems self-assured and focused, but he is even more lost than Swofford.
Jarhead is married to the conventions of war movies, something Mendes (Road to Perdition) is so aware of that he shows scenes of the Marines watching other war movies (and inevitably misunderstanding their message). Though reworked and placed in proper context, scene after scene in Jarhead echoes something we've encountered before. The foul-mouthed harassment of drill instructor Fitch (Scott MacDonald) recalls the almost identical performance of Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Swofford's relationship with Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) recalls Richard Gere's relationship with Lou Gossett in Taylor Hackford's An Officer and a Gentleman. The tense scene with the Arab traders and the jittery Marines' fear that they are being set up for a surprise attack recalls the sampan sequence in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. With the Kuwaiti oil fields aflame in the background, Sgt. Sykes' soliloquy about adoring his job reminds us of Robert Duvall's loving the smell of napalm in the morning in that same film. Though creepier and more surreal, even the burned highway passage has appeared before in David O. Russell's Three Kings. And one might argue that the mad football game in gas masks here echoes the more elaborate but equally nonsensical gridiron battle in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H.
Though little is narratively new, I suppose we never exhaust the need to illustrate the dehumanizing nature of war. The men who are organized to fight suffer great physical discomfort and almost utter loss of personal privacy and individual identity. It's no wonder that men lose control of themselves under these circumstances, as happens to Swofford and Troy and others in the unit; it's perhaps only remarkable that any discipline at all is sustained. The madness attendant to such dislocation and fear is rendered here as powerfully as ever before.
One supposes that Mendes dodged political considerations on purpose. He focuses on the terrifying and numbing experiences of men in the field without ever stepping back to wonder why civilized society determines to put them there. Some wars, World War II being the most notable example, must be fought. And one can certainly make the case that the American air campaign in Serbia and our toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan did some good.
Altman's M*A*S*H used Korea to comment on Vietnam, but with American troops once again on the ground in Iraq, this time not for days but for years, one feels frustrated that Mendes ignores the elephant in the center of his story. Mendes' central point, and every veteran I know would agree, is that bearing arms under fire changes a person forever. But this is left unacknowledged: it's one thing to require young men to endure the horrors of war; it's quite another to ask them to do so in a fraudulent war that can't be won.