In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir wait for someone (God?) who never arrives, evoking the absurdity and powerlessness of the modern condition. In “Jarhead,” based on the memoirs of Persian Gulf veteran Anthony Swofford, Marine recruits wait for something (war) that never arrives. The absurdity and powerlessness of their condition is evoked as they try to find some sense or meaning in their deployment.
Swofford was trained as a sniper, then sent to a war that was all in the air. His platoon spent more time showing a reporter what they would do if they got to fight than they spent actually fighting. They are warned that Saddam Hussein would use poison gas, but their protective gear falls apart. They are given pills to counteract the effects of biological warfare, but first they have to sign a waiver because no one knows whether the pills themselves will cause permanent damage. And for months at a stretch they are stuck in the desert, where it is scorchingly hot, far from any other people, and thousands of miles from home.
They went through brutal the training that turned boys into killers who aim for “the JFK shot — pink mist.” It transformed them so that what they once dreaded — whether going into battle or being branded USMC — became what they desired. But it was even tougher to be put in the desert and not given the chance to do what they have been trained for.
They are told to maintain a constant state of suspicious alertness. For months of nothingness, they shoot and throw grenades at nothing, then hydrate, tell a reporter they love to serve their country, wait for letters from home, and hydrate again. And on a bus, they see a Viet Nam war veteran, looking haggard and broken, and they wonder, if they do survive, whether that is how they will end up.
In its structure, this is the classic war memoir. There is the terrifying drill instructor and the almost-as-terrifying initiation ritual. There is a sensitive hero (he is reading The Stranger by Camus) thrown together with a diverse group of recruits by circumstance, getting on each other’s nerves but establishing the bonds of loyalty that are only forged in the direst human circumstances.
There is boredom. There is horror. There is loneliness. There is loss and betrayal. There is courage, loyalty, honor, and, finally, sometimes, understanding.
But in the traditional war movie, all of this comes through battle that replicates and reinforces the battle inside. In this movie, it almost is all inside. They say that the military always prepares for the last war. In this case, this platoon prepared for a war that made their skills obsolete. Echoes of Viet Nam are everywhere as the Marines joyfully sing along to Wagner while watching “Appocalypse Now” and later, listening to The Doors, ask plaintively whether this war will ever get its own music.
Mendes is a master of visual sumptuousness, from the nightmare landscapes of endless oil-soaked sand and charred bodies to the small confines of a testosterone- and liquor-soaked Christmas party in the tent. Brilliant performances by Jake Gyllanhaal as Swofford, Jamie Foxx as his sargeant, and Peter Sarsgaard and Lucas Black as fellow Marines make the characters vital and moving. He gets the chemistry of the frustrated all-male energy right. But the screenplay has some holes, especially about Sarsgaard’s character that make it, like Swofford’s deployment, unsatisfying.
Parents should know that as one might expect for a movie about Marines in wartime, this has constant obscene, profane, and vulgar language, extremely explicit sexual references and situations, and battle violence, including charred bodies, shooting, and scuffles and fights. A Marine is branded by his platoon. Characters drink and get drunk.
Families who see this movie should talk about what kind of training and equipment are required in order to make enlistees into effective soldiers. They may want to talk about family experiences in the military and what it is fair for people who choose not to serve to expect from those who do. How do the experiences of these characters reflect the changing nature of combat? What does it mean to burn the fat off our souls?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Three Kings, Appocalypse Now (watched by the Marines in the film) and M*A*S*H. They may appreciate the deeply disturbing Full Metal Jacket. Families should also watch Gunner Palace, a documentary about the current conflict that is not pro-war or anti-war but pro-soldier. It allows them to tell their own stories in their own words. They should see Mr. Roberts, a WWII drama about those whose wartime responsibilities take them “from tedium to apathy and back again, with a side trip to monotony,” and The Red Badge of Courage, about a young civil war soldier’s fears that when the battle comes, he will not be able to muster the bravery necessary to demonstrate his value to those around him, more important to him, at least at the beginning of the story, than demonstrating it to himself.
Families will also appreciate Swofford’s book, Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles as well as other wartime memoirs and novels, from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five to John Crawford’s The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell : An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq. For a General’s eye view of the Persian Gulf war, families can read Norman Schwartzkopf’s It Doesn’t Take a Hero. They can see Cooper and Gyllanhaal as father and son in October Sky.