"Thank God," says an exultant marine at the end of this story of the first Iraq war, "we'll never have to come back to this shithole ever again!" Sam Mendes's gleamingly accomplished and controlled screen version of Anthony Swofford's military memoir allows its historical ironies to float some way up to the surface, before sinking enigmatically back down again. With cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Walter Murch, Mendes heads up a triple-A-team of filmmaking and Jarhead is something which is stunning to look at and to listen to, with elegantly chosen pop songs unspooling on the soundtrack under each fresh new horror.
Swofford is a 20-year-old soldier in the US Marine Corps during the 1991 Gulf War, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, an actor who here bulks up in maturity and presence: Swofford's future literary sensibilities are signalled with a battered copy of Camus' The Stranger which, to his embarr-assment, he is discovered reading on the lavatory by his drill sergeant, and through his deadpan voiceover, introducing us to each of the bizarre episodes.
Swofford endured all the brutal privations and initiations -- including having his head shaved into the "jarhead" cut -- and was then shipped out to the burning Saudi desert, where he and his comrades experienced an unending Beckettian nightmare of doing nothing in the 100℃-plus heat. Then, when the shooting war finally got underway, Swofford found that, as glorified infantry, the marines were virtually redundant as the hi-tech planes and computer-guided bombs flashed overhead. Even when he has a chance of real action as a sniper, this too is to lead nowhere.
PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX MOVIES
It is Groundhog D-day: a study of bafflement and frustration and disillusion, a study of nothing happening nearly all the time. It is an anti-war-movie in the sense that it reverses and confounds the conventional demands for exciting celluloid war action. This has caused some puzzled head-shaking among US critics on its US release last year. They are missing the point. Professional soldiers testify that a lot of their existence in the field of battle is spent going out of their heads with boredom. Military life does not guarantee to satisfy the narrative demand for confrontation. More than this, Jarhead reminds us of the dangerous lesson that the first Iraq war appeared to teach, and on which the current military adventure was partly founded -- that Saddam's Iraq can be defeated painlessly, in a hi-tech daze.
Swofford finds that the real drama is the male rage among his comrades. His sniper-partner Troy, played by the sleepy-eyed Peter Sarsgaard, has an awful secret about his civilian life. His drill sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) is not merely a traditional screamer-7cm-from-the-face but a whim-sical satirist who forces Swofford to imitate bugling reveille without a bugle. His platoon disgrace themselves with a group nervous breakdown in front of a TV crew when Sykes sadistically makes them play touch football wearing chemical masks in the brain-frying heat. Finally, they chance upon the horrific mass death of refugees on the Basra road. They are forced to absorb both the frustration of not engaging the enemy and the horror of being associated with this wholesale slaughter of civilians.
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Anthony Swofford), Scott MacDonald (DI Fitch), Lo Ming (Bored Gunny), Kevin Foster (Branded Marine), Peter Sarsgaard (Troy), Damion Poitier (Poitier), Riad Galayini (Nurse)
Running time: 123 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
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