In the 1992 film of Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games, CIA analyst Jack Ryan, played by Harrison Ford, watches from a remote command post as an attack on a terrorist camp is carried out. The thermal imagery is broadcast on a giant screen, and even though the details are nothing more than pixels on a screen, Ryan is shocked by the matter-of-fact dismissal of life.

Ever since reporters became imbedded, the way we see war has changed dramatically. Once images from Vietnam flashed across our television screens, we went from casual observer to armchair military analyst. With each new skirmish we found ourselves closer to the action, seeing, hearing and virtually experiencing the horrors and heroics. Cell phones, the Internet, and satellites combined to make the experience even more personal.

So how does Jarhead fit into the scheme of things? Following a platoon of Marines as they participate in the Gulf War, Jarhead is well made and features earnest performances. What it lacks is a voice, a reason for being. Based on Anthony Swofford’s less-than-flattering expose, the screenplay by William Broyles Jr. has been boiled down to a conventional tale of Marines being Marines.

The problem is director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) sees every exchange of dialogue as high drama, something one would expect from a noted stage director. Common, everyday exchanges between characters might work on stage, but in Jarhead they feel forced and contrived. The cast is to be congratulated for not allowing drama to become melodrama, an easy slip when dealing with overly familiar material.

Jarhead could have been the right movie at the right time, a mirror of the current political climate, but the filmmakers seem more interested in setting up the dominos rather than knocking them down. An occasional white cap of dissension surfaces above this ocean of military movie cliches, but Mendes quickly navigates the film to calm waters. Why create strong characters and then turn them into political mimes?

To diffuse the situation, Mendes and Broyles Jr. hide behind the military code of conduct, which punishes anyone who speaks out against the institution or its Commander in Chief. It’s a tough lesson learned by Marine sniper Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose stint in the Gulf is filled with tedium. Anxious to be part of a precision killing machine, Swofford is disappointed to learn the Gulf War is more about oil than killing people.

Films tackling war are usually about battle and conflict, but Jarhead is more concerned about the battle raging inside the mind of Swofford. Stuck in the middle of hell, forced to wear anti-gas suits elevating body temperature above 118 degrees, unable to enjoy the comforts of home, it’s a tough nut to crack without going nuts. Fighting the good cause takes a back seat to boredom, and while these soldiers make the best of a bad situation, it’s not enough to make us care.

Why? Too much blood has been spilled since the flag-waving days of the John Wayne war film for us to connect with a movie afraid to take sides. We don’t sit through war films for entertainment, we endure them for the experience, but when the experience becomes diluted, we’re left with nothing more than good intentions.

Jarhead, like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, would have benefitted from a largely unknown cast. Seeing famous faces playing soldier brings back bad memories of George W. Bush standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a flight suit. It just doesn’t work. Kubrick was aware familiarity bred contempt and hired unknowns to play recruits. We connected with the characters on their level.

The stars of Jarhead, Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, have all done excellent work but like Bush, look like they’re playing soldier. Remember the first time we encountered R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket? Because we was unfamiliar with his work, he scared us as much as his recruits. Nothing in Jarhead comes close to recreating that authority.

Marine Biology

Jarhead Dissects Wartime Mentality


Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, Jamie Fox, Chris Cooper, Brian Geraghty, Evan Jones. Directed by Sam Mendes. Rated R. 123 Minutes.

Larsen Rating: $4.00

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