Screens Ride of the furies

Loosed on a foreign land without a higher purpose, jarheads go berserk

We are always fighting the last war as much as the one at hand. Anthony Swofford was conceived during his father’s furlough from Vietnam, and that harrowing conflict — its music, movies, and expectations — shaped Swofford’s experiences as a Marine during the first Gulf War 20 years later. Watching a tape of Apocalypse Now before deployment in the Middle East, he and his comrades croon accompaniment to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and shout encouragement at helicopters swooping in on Southeast Asian villagers. Now, in the fourth year of a second American campaign against Iraq comes Jarhead, the adaptation of Swofford’s memoir of derangement in the Arabian Peninsula 15 years ago.

US Marines, guarding an oil pipeline.

“We are still in the desert,” says Swoff (Gyllenhaal) at the end of a voiceover that concludes the film.

Jarhead traces the transformation of an amiable 20-year-old from Sacramento into a bellicose maniac who exists to fight a war in which leathernecks no longer serve a purpose. Swoff is trained to be a sniper, but the Iraqis are defeated by rapid air strikes for which his company of grunts trudging through the desert is irrelevant. From brutal basic training through the roar of Desert Storm and its subsidence, the film is a visceral immersion in the experience of the smooth-pated, hard-driving American fighters known as jarheads. “I love this job,” says Sergeant Siek (Foxx), just after finding one of his men abusing a corpse. “I thank God for every day he gives me in the Corps.” Siek’s gratitude is one of the more subtle symptoms of the madness that seizes all the men.

Jake Gyllenhaal portrays the narrator in the film adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s book, Jarhead, about a Marine troop in the first Gulf War.

Though it was shot in California’s Imperial Valley, Jarhead offers stunning images of uniformed intruders among endless dunes and blazing wells. In one of the most haunting scenes, a lone horse wanders at night across the frame, riderless, its bare skin glossy from the burning oil that rains down from the sky.

In another scene, the Marines, dressed in their bulky protective gear, are ordered to play football in the sands. A scene in which Swofford is punished by having to incinerate the contents of the camp’s latrines is so visceral it reeks.

Dir. Sam Mendes; writ. William Broyles Jr., based on the book by Anthony Swofford; feat. Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Brian Geraghty, Chris Cooper (R)

Jarhead immerses a viewer in the uncouth, unnerving experiences of a group of men who are transformed into lethal beasts but end up spending the brief war fighting boredom and one another. The escapades of this horny, vulgar band of brothers resemble nothing so much as a movable frat party gone berserk. Unlike the exquisite Three Kings, Sam Mendes’ Gulf War film does not offer satire as much as a middle finger thrust in the face of anyone mouthing the platitude “We support our troops.” Does Jarhead take a political stand amid the shifting sands of the Middle East? “Fuck politics,” says Troy (Sarsgaard), Swofford’s closest buddy. “We’re here. All the rest is bullshit.” Politics of course put them there, but Mendes manages to put us there as well. Are there lessons for the present? “Every war is different,” cautions Swofford, before adding, “Every war is the same.”

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