Judge Brett Cullum would much rather have a jar-shaped head than Fred Astaire's lightbulb-shaped noggin.
Anthony 'Swoff' Swofford: Whatever else he may do with his life—build a house, love a woman, change his son's diaper—he will always be a jarhead. And all the jarheads killing and dying, they will always be me. We are still in the desert.
Director Sam Mendes followed his Oscar-winning screen debut American Beauty with the equally daring Road to Perdition. Now for his third film he's chosen to translate a deeply personal memoir from real life Marine Anthony Swofford about the Gulf War. It was to be a daunting task, since the book Jarhead mainly concerned the frustrating mind-numbing boredom of waiting for war to happen day in and out. Men were sent to sit in a desert, and that is what the film Jarhead attempts to illuminate. Jarhead didn't do huge box office domestically, and it was passed over by the Academy and other organizations for major award nominations. And yet interestingly enough, there are three versions available simultaneously on DVD: fullscreen, widescreen, and a collector's two-disc edition. Universal has certainly given a lot of attention for this release.
Facts of the Case
Jarhead chronicles the tour of duty of Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko) as he enlists in the Marines in the early '90s just as the Gulf War heats up. We get to see him go through boot camp, and end up in a desert in the Middle East where things are frustratingly slow. We get to follow his misadventures as Operation Desert Shield morphs in to Operation Desert Storm, and mysteriously ends as quickly as it began. Anthony becomes a sniper for the Marines, and finds himself trained to do a job technically not essential to the mission in the Gulf War Middle East operation, which relied more on air tactics than ground troops (a vast difference with the current Iraq campaign). The movie spends a good hour and a half with the guys waiting for anything to happen, and then a final reel that puts them on the edge of all the action. The violence seems just out of reach, and the soldiers fume at missing an opportunity to make a huge difference.
Being in the military is the hardest patriotic act a young man or woman can decide to undertake. I've spent a lot of time on U.S. military bases around the world, and we should be proud of the professionalism and commitment the troops display day in and out. America has the best military in the world. Unfortunately, the Armed Services have often been portrayed in a negative light in Hollywood after Vietnam. World War II's jingoistic "let's go get them, men" rah-rah pro-war movies are a relic of the past in Tinseltown. It seems modern filmmakers are out to criticize soldiers and war as something that destroys people and souls rather than heroic acts of noble self-sacrifice. Interestingly enough, Jarhead does neither. It doesn't criticize the military, but it also does not seek to bolster it. It is a peculiar portrait of a quagmire stemming from inaction. To quote one of the characters, "Welcome to the suck."
A lot of enlisted men and women, as well as veterans of the first Gulf War, applaud Jarhead for accurately portraying the isolation and frustration of being sent somewhere to wait for a war to happen. These are young soldiers sent to a place they don't know, waiting to fight for a cause they don't entirely understand. Anyone expecting an action-packed war movie is going to be in for a rude awakening. Jarhead deals with the exasperatingly mundane small details of doing menial tasks, training to be a sniper, and what soldiers do in their downtime. Only two soldiers die in the film, both in cases of friendly fire. This is a quiet movie about introspection rather than a horror show of gaping wounds or people lying in pools of blood. It's still rough, raw, and crude. The f-bomb is dropped 278 times in its 123-minute running time. It earns its R-rating through endless swearing and extremely graphic sexual talk. Don't think it's an easy ride, just not an action packed one.
The cast is strong, and the performances are bitterly real. Gyllenhaal, fresh off an Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain, is in fine form both physically and as an actor. He has the right mix of violent raw emotion and somber placid ennui to pull off the lead role we see everything through. Gyllenhaal has proven his wide range this year, and Jarhead is a 180-degree turn from his role in the aforementioned Brokeback Mountain. He's crude, he's savagely heterosexual, and he's physically imposing. Yet both roles play off Jake's almost innate ability to appear introspective no matter what he is doing. He's an interesting actor who always seems to have more going on beneath the surface than is ever revealed. He has an awesome agent, or personally knows the business well when you consider Jarhead will reach every audience member who refused to see Brokeback Mountain. Peter Sarsgaard (The Skeleton Key) gets the flashiest role as Swofford's sniper friend Troy. Sarsgaard gets the climactic freak-out instead of Gyllenhaal, and actually comes off as the actor given the most to accomplish. He's got the hardest turn, and succeeds in making it believable. Oscar winner Jamie Foxx (Ray) makes for a feral staff sergeant who leads with a foul mouth and oddly supportive big brother hand. He plays things one note, but it's a rich sustain on his part. Fellow Oscar honoree Chris Cooper (Adaptation) has a brief role as a Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the troops. He's good in the small amount of screen time he gets.
Stylistically, the movie is a departure for director Mendes. His previous efforts have relied on painterly smooth clean push-ins, and the plots were deeply rooted in fantasy. The camera moves for Jarhead are jittery and handheld to give the piece a gritty documentary feel. The color palette is severely washed out, and the film stock is overexposed and purposefully grainy. It's nowhere as bleached out as Traffic, but you'll notice it in the visual presentation. Interestingly enough, several fantasy sequences were filmed, but were the first sections to be lifted from the finished product. The movie is full of stunning visual images, so the disc offers a near pristine transfer that does the movie justice. The sound mix is aggressive and well done. The soundtrack is chock full of period music from the early '90s from C&C Music Factory to early Nirvana. It's a strong movie visually and sonically, which Universal should provide well for.
Extras are healthy and plentiful on the regular widescreen version, the fullscreen, and the collector's edition of the DVD. The commentaries on the feature film proper include a director's commentary with Sam Mendes, who is quite strong expressing his intentions. Most surprising is how he wanted to make a statement about the current war with Jarhead, and it is something I would not have caught otherwise. Anthony Swofford and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. provide further insight on a separate track of their own. Common to all editions are deleted fantasy sequences of Swofford, extended improvised news footage, over thirty-five minutes of other deleted scenes, and very insightful commentary over the excised footage from director Sam Mendes and editor Walter Murch. Easily they could have incorporated all this excised footage and produce an hour longer extended cut (director's cut on the horizon?), but wisely the scenes remain on their own in the special features on the primary disc. Exclusive to the two-disc Collector's Edition are The Jarhead Diaries, which supplants a normal EPK packet. It's a piece shot by the cast and crew of the movie during the course of the film. There are also two extremely well done featurettes on the collector's edition called Semper Fi and Background. The first one features author Tony Swofford speaking with Gulf War and Iraq War veterans about their experiences both in the Middle East and when they come home. The Collector's Edition is far more inclusive of the real experiences, and will be the better version for people who want the truth behind the fiction.Background is a feature where the extras who play Marines in the movie get a chance to talk. It's a fun look at how they cast the colorful soldiers to flesh out the film. Many of these guys are veterans, and they tell stories of why being in the movie is important to them.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
After Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Black Hawk Down, and Apocalypse Now, Jarhead doesn't stand a chance of offering much new. As competent as it is visually, as well cast as it is, it feels like it's holding back. The material makes a better book than movie, and perhaps a visualist like Sam Mendes was a liability rather than an asset in the director's chair. Imagine giving Ridley Scott a screenplay that relies on interior thoughts far more than beautiful well designed images. The real problem of handing a visualist a personal memoir to adapt is the director seems more concerned with the cinematography than the main character. He's taken a book where the protagonist felt honor bound to fulfill his father's legacy, and blurred up his motivations and reasonings in a montage of fantastic images. Jarhead is too in love with pictures to be passionate or human consistently. As a visceral experience it works in spades, but as a character study it falls a little flat. Three Kings caught the chaotic flavor of this war better, even though it was reaching for satirical farce. Yet there are still scenes of beauty that sum up the experience well. The burning oil field sequence features many wonderful images that tell the story effectively.
Jarhead really should have been a master work for Sam Mendes. He has a first rate cast, deeply personal material to mine, and a large production budget to create a timely meditation on war. And yet teasingly I've heard some critics taunt him by calling the movie "Operation: Mediocrity." He definitely shows a painterly eye for capturing beautiful images even in the grit of a war drama, but somehow the movie fails to comment on current events effectively. It doesn't seem to rest easily in the canon of antiwar films, and it has no political viewpoint. In his thoughtful commentary he claims he was shooting for a political statement that could not be tied to one party's politics by simply showing the war with no editorial flourishes. You will take what you want from the film, and it will not make you question your own politics in the slightest. I don't really understand how a statement can be made without an opinion. It seems to rob the material of any voice, something the book had in spades. The only thing it communicates clearly is a soldier's need to fight, and the frustration that happens when they can't.
Jarhead is an amazing visceral tour of duty through the first Gulf War. It feels genuinely well performed, and features breathtaking visuals. The only gripe I have is the movie tries to recapture the book's introspection and can't get there. Any time film tries to adapt an inner monologue it's a challenge. Amazingly enough, the movie neither glamorizes nor condemns the military, and remains politically neutral in the process. That's a smart move given the current state of the world, but it makes a not very bold movie. Thankfully on the Collector's Edition we do get real stories from real Marines. It's there where you'll find what you are really looking for. These men are the heroes I've been searching for, and reveals things the movie can't. No matter how hard it tries, no single film can capture the experience of a soldier. If it's important to honor these men and women, I would suggest the Collector's Edition as the way to go.
Guilty of being an amazing visual experience without a true punch to the gut, Jarhead is a unique film that explores the boredom of waiting for war. It's a well made film, but a portrait of inertia more than anything else. Those looking to criticize the military will find no ammunition here, and those hoping to find support for the Armed Services will have to find it on the extras of the Collector's Edition. Regardless of your politics, I urge you to at least say thank you the next time you bump in to a man or woman in uniform. They are all heroes in some way just for being willing to sacrifice the time and their life for our country. Semper Fi.
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Scales of Justice, Jarhead: Collector's Edition
Perp Profile, Jarhead: Collector's Edition
Distinguishing Marks, Jarhead: Collector's Edition
• Commentary by Director Sam Mendes
Scales of Justice, Jarhead: Widescreen Edition
Perp Profile, Jarhead: Widescreen Edition
Distinguishing Marks, Jarhead: Widescreen Edition
• Commentary by Director Sam Mendes
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