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Movie Review: Jarhead

November 6th, 2005

Sam Mendes' war-from-a-soldier's-point-of-view movie hits some high notes, particularly as a technical exercise, but never successfully makes a human connection with its subjects.

Police helicopters whirled overhead and riot police stood across the street as I made my way to the screening of Jarhead this week. A block away, an anti-Bush rally was in full cry. The coincidence seemed appropriate stage-setting for a movie about soldiers in Iraq, and heightened my curiosity going in to the film: how do you make a movie about the first Gulf War without becoming embroiled in the most heated political debate in the United States in a generation?

It is to Sam Mendes' credit that he mostly manages to do so. There are a few (largely unnecessary) references to the current Iraq situation scattered through the movie, but for the most part the story—based on Anthony Swofford's best-selling personal account of his experiences—centers on a soldier's-eye perspective of life in the Marines before and during the war. By and large, politics seem distant and peripheral to what's going on.

Of course it's hard for me to be certain what being a soldier in wartime is like, not having experienced it myself, but Jarhead is an eye-opening account of what the soldiers go through. Like the book it is based on, the movie takes an unflinching look at the day-to-day lives of the soldiers, their relationships, and their reactions to the events of the war as it unfolds.

Unsurprisingly, testosterone abounds: there's enough swearing to make a sailor blush (as my grandfather used to say), and copious details you'd probably rather not know about the men's sexual habits. While this can be uncomfortable to watch (don't take your mother to see this movie!), it does imbue the film with an unusual degree of authenticity. More interesting are the struggles the soldiers have to retain a connection with wives and girlfriends back home, a detail that soldiers who have reviewed the book on generally call out as authentic.

Even with these details of every day soldier life, though, the movie never really makes an emotional connection with its audience. Possibly this is because the characters are portrayed too honestly, making it harder to feel sympathy for them. But to a greater extent, it's because of the contrivances introduced in the making of the movie version. Jamie Foxx's character, Sergeant Siek, comes straight out of every other army movie you've ever seen. In fact, you could basically swap every word he utters with Louis Gossett Jr.'s script from "An Officer and a Gentleman" and not notice the difference. That would be fair enough if Siek appeared in the original book, but it seems he was created specifically for the movie.

While I don't have a copy of the book in front of me, it also seems remarkable that in the movie, the soldiers apparently experience all of the iconic moments of the Iraq war (burning oil fields, attack from friendly fire, the wreckage of convoys hit in American air strikes and so on...) in the space of what appears to be about 24 hours. These events do provide some of the most compelling sequences in the film—those filmed in the midst of the burning oil fields are particularly impressive. But, once more, one is left with the feeling that the film-makers couldn't content themselves with just telling the actual story.

In the end, that's the movie's great failing. After setting out as a brutally honest depiction of life in the Marines, somehow it gets lost in the desert.

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