Sam Mendes' specious adaptation of Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoir is both antiwar and anti-soldier.

Published November 4, 2005 1:00PM (EST)

Early in Sam Mendes' adaptation of Anthony Swofford's memoir of the 1991 Gulf War, "Jarhead," a monstrous boot-camp drill instructor smashes the head of a young Marine recruit -- the protagonist and narrator of the story, played by Jake Gyllenhaal -- into a chalkboard for no good reason. Mendes presents this as a typical instance of Marine brutality, just one insignificant miniature in the mass-meathead M.O. of the U.S. military. He lays it on us and then quickly moves on to some other instance of degradation and humiliation, as if he fancied himself Lars von Trier remaking "Gomer Pyle."

What's odd about the scene is that in Swofford's book, the instructor uses Swofford's head to break the chalkboard (in the movie, it remains intact), so that his skull hits the cinder-block wall behind it. Later, a command lieutenant witnesses another instance of the drill instructor's explosiveness and tells the recruits that if any of them have been physically assaulted by the instructor, they should report it. (Swofford and others did.)

Nothing much changed -- the instructor was transferred to another platoon, so at least Swofford didn't have to deal with him. Even so, none of that appears in Mendes' movie, because it would negate his "Military: Bad!" thesis. And while every filmmaker has the right to shape (and sometimes reshape) the text he's adapting, the difference between Swofford's account of the assault and Mendes' dramatization of it encapsulates everything that's specious about the movie "Jarhead." Swofford's book is both funnier and more horrifying than the movie Mendes has made from it, and he makes no bones about how messed up (by civilian standards, at least), the U.S. Marine Corps is. But his book also addresses a world of greater complexities, and at the very least, it's ultimately about soldiers -- in other words, people. Mendes doesn't care about people -- he's too busy making his art. And with "Jarhead" he pulls off, effortlessly, what so many pro- and antiwar individuals since Vietnam have tried so conscientiously to avoid: His movie is antiwar and anti-soldier.

I suppose that shouldn't come as a shock. Mendes is about as far as you can get from a humanist filmmaker; he's more of a floatist filmmaker -- he's so above it all, this wretched mess we know as human life, that the best he can do is file pinched, jaundiced reports from his lofty cloud. In pictures like "American Beauty" and "Road to Perdition," Mendes doesn't love his characters; he can barely contain his contempt for them. But in order to make movies, he needs characters, so he reluctantly works with what he's got.

Swofford's character here is like a piece of raw meat Mendes feels he needs to punch into shape. We see Gyllenhaal both reading Camus and, with his fellow Marines, just as they're all about to be deployed to the Gulf, whooping and cheering with bloodthirsty glee during a showing of "Apocalypse Now." Much of what's in Mendes' movie actually appears, in some sense, in Swofford's book (the screenplay here is by William Broyles Jr.): Swofford makes the point that, even though Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone sincerely believe their films are antiwar, to men who have been trained to kill, "the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills." Swofford may not be making a pretty observation there, but it's a considerably more delicate one than Mendes even tries to make.

All of that suggests that Mendes is more interested in scoring his own points than in capturing the subtler, more interesting ideas in Swofford's book, which is his choice to make. But even within the discrete universe of the movie itself, Mendes is sneakily halfhearted in his desire to present Swofford -- the Camus reader and the trained killer, an STA (Surveillance and Target Acquisition) scout/sniper -- as a human being and not just the military's clueless chump. Mendes can't see Swofford as both a good soldier and a good man, because in his view the two are mutually exclusive. So he spends the majority of the movie showing the ways in which Swofford and his fellow Marines are sadistically degraded by their superiors, as when Swofford is invited to try out for the position of bugler, only to be told by his staff sergeant, Siek (Jamie Foxx), in front of the whole platoon, that no such position exists -- and then ordered to play reveille with nothing but his lips.

Scenes like that create a nice, safe distance between characters and audience: We can cluck cluck over the U.S. war machine, professing to feel the pain of the poor innocents forced to participate in such cruelty, without ever acknowledging that the guys who join that "war machine" often get something more from it than just a cruel induction into real manhood. As Swofford points out in his book, the military offers a kind of secure domesticity, and there's certainly a sense of community. One thing Mendes at least hints at, late in the film, is the way these guys, living in close quarters and under such extreme conditions, learn thousands of intimate details about each other -- and yet, because of the "high and tight" regulation haircut, they may not know what their best buddies look like with actual hair.

The one heartening thing about "Jarhead" is the way the actors -- subconsciously, I'm sure -- refuse to yield to Mendes' brand of puppetry. Gyllenhaal is asked to play a naif here (albeit a smart-alecky one), but his face always suggests intelligence and depth: He has the huge, dark, skeptical eyes of a Max Beckmann charcoal drawing. Peter Sarsgaard, as the sincere, sensible Marine Troy -- a guy who, unlike Swofford, really wants to be in the Marines -- gives off an aura of sincerity that doesn't seem to be written into the script. And Foxx, even in the thankless role of the hard-ass sergeant, is a pleasure to watch: We see glimmers of good humor behind the character's bullying cartooniness.

But as hard as the actors work, "Jarhead" feels false right down to its seductive visuals. There are places where cinematographer Roger Deakins' work strives to give us the human touch so foreign to Mendes: Early in the movie, when we meet the young, newly shaven recruits, they have the look of child cancer-ward patients, perhaps a little sickly but definitely spirited -- a subtle way of contrasting their youth with the horrifying experiences they're preparing to face. Deakins is a great cinematographer, and you may find yourself marveling at the way he captures the shimmery, cold brightness of the desert -- until you realize how blatantly the look of "Jarhead" is borrowed from David O. Russell's far superior "Three Kings" (shot by Newton Thomas Sigel).

It's impossible to make a movie set during the first Gulf War without delivering at least an implicit political statement about the current one. Late in "Jarhead," Gyllenhaal's Swofford reflects on his own experience -- fighting a war that, unlike this current one, lasted only four days -- and intones, "We're still in the desert." Mendes means to suggest, I think, that the flawed, reckless Marines we've gotten to know in his movie are exactly the people we've sent out to fight our current war: They may be brave kids, doing their duty, but they're really not very smart, and it's our government's fault for sending them out that way.

There are grains of truth in that view: We have sent kids out to fight with far less training than they need, and with faulty equipment (and too little of it). But now that, once again, we're stuck in a war we never should have fought, doesn't it seem conveniently facile to be damning the mind-set of soldiers?

That's assuming, and we probably shouldn't, that all soldiers have an easily defined single mind-set to begin with. Swofford's book suggests the fallacy of that kind of thinking. Here's how he describes the scene in which he's invited to try out to be a bugler, and in which, rather than humiliating him in front of his platoon, his staff sergeant actually saves him from potential future embarrassment:

"You still want that bugle job? There isn't a bugle job, you fucking monkey! I could've humiliated you in front of the battalion, called you out there to make bugle noises with your mouth. But I didn't because for some reason I like you. Swofford, you are a goddamn Marine Corps grunt. You are the most savage, the meanest, the crudest, the most unforgiving creature in God's cruel kingdom. You are a killer, not a goddamn bugle player. That bugle shit is from the movies."

Tell it to the Marines. But first, tell it to Mendes.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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