Review: “Jarhead”

War movies ranging from “Tigerland” and “Full Metal Jacket”, to “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now”, all usually examine a multitude of issues built around the oldest of tales – the turning of fresh faced naive young men into more world weary souls who’ve become aware of the suffering and futility that war brings.

“Jarhead” is yet another movie in this trend with two key differences – as its set in the recent past, the soldiers reason for joining are more contemporary (driven by media illusion rather than blind patriotism), and there is no actual war as such to drive them to reason. Set during the first Gulf War, ‘Jarhead’ plays like a series of sketches examining the lives of the everyday solider on the ground as they endlessly wait for the battles that would never come.

Its a formula with some potential but it is ultimately wasted by its filmmakers who seem to see it as an exercise in futility and delayed gratification. Desperately trying to steer clear of politicising the events portrayed or linking them with the recent Iraq war, the story essentially ends up treading water – playing out all sorts of mini scenarios with no real throughput or satisfying conclusion. Ultimately it lets the film only manage to involve its audience in fits and starts, the few vignettes which do work are more related to humour and realism than anything else.

Sam Mendes, like Michael Bay, is a director that’s all surface with little depth. Bay at least is upfront about his shallowness, Mendes tries to hide his general ambivalence with unconvincing metaphors about life, yet succeeds in many people’s eyes thanks to a strong visual style and sense of the cinematic. He and cinematographer Roger Deakins do deliver some refreshingly convincing on the ground visuals which range the gamut from intense in your face like the marine training sequences, to the haunting shots of a desert on fire and swallowed in a tempest of black oil.

Populating these images however is a group of forgettably dumb young male characters sitting around the desert goofing off and growing both naturally impatient, frustrated and occasionally angered by the tedium of waiting for the inevitable. To be fair the script portrays these young men’s behaviour in a realistic way, but we learn little about these guys at the beginning and even less as they carry on.

Gyllenhaal is an enjoyable if slightly bland at times lead who spends most of the film either bemoaning everything or flashing off his new muscles, Sarsgaard merely sleepwalks through his role, and Cooper’s two scenes are so short there’s no reason he should be on the cast list. Only Foxx as the tough talking seargeant leaves any impression after the film is over and its more because of his work bringing nuance to a very stock character.

Whilst “Jarhead” may have carefully avoided stepping on some of the more delicate political landmines, it ends up backing right into broader ones related to the military in general, its training methods, recruitment policies and its disciplinary issues – to the point that the Jarhead poster may as well be the anti-military counterpart to the famous Uncle Sam “I Want You” recruitment image. If there is a point to be made with the film is that it seems to be trying to serve as a rebuke of military culture.

The trouble with that is anyone who’s smart enough to get that is almost certainly unlikely to have any real blind illusions about what serving in the military is like, whilst those who don’t will find the whole exercise on the tedious side. As a foreigner viewing this film, in many ways it actually does a disservice to those who are serving by reinforcing the stereotype that the American military is just a big dumb blundering machine filled with trigger happy idiots under the command of politicians and businessmen who either don’t know what they’re doing or are out only for themselves.

When “Jarhead” does work its enjoyable – its early training scenes and its downbeat but visually interesting last half hour in particular come off with a slick, albeit familiar feel. Still, its general malaise is something that both helps and harms it – effectively portraying the tediousness of the events in question but doing so at the cost of effective pacing or viewer interest. Its the kind of story that obviously wasn’t designed to be turned into a film and Mendes’ attempt whilst looking good is certainly far from a comfortable fit. Sporadically entertaining, and ultimately pointless – although that seems to be its agenda right from the start.