reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, December 5, 2005


War movies have been getting more stomach-churning over the decades, but that hasn't hurt recruiting. The more gore on the screen, the more boys want to prove they're man enough to take it. Although Marines have been dying in Iraq at a disproportionate rate, the manliest of all the services still hit its enlistment quota for fiscal year 2005, while the more feminized Army has struggled.

Former Marine lance corporal Anthony Swofford writes in "Jarhead," his somewhat embroidered Desert Storm memoir about his love-hate relationships with war and his fellow warriors, "Vietnam war films are all pro-war, not matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended."

Indeed, when "Apocalypse Now" was finally released in 1979 after years of hype about how it would be the ultimate antiwar movie, I noticed that all the most macho ROTC guys at my college were humming Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Likewise, in this slow but often hilarious adaptation of Swofford's book, a theatre full of Marines lustily sings along as Francis Ford Coppola's helicopters rain down death from above. Young soldiers, Swofford notes, are excited by war movies "because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills."

The highly literary Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal of "Proof"), whose favorite book is The Stranger, Camus's novel about shooting an Arab, kvetches amusingly, if endlessly, about the Kuwait war. Still, his biggest regret was that Iraq was defeated before he had time to kill anybody, which is definitely not a shortcoming of the current Administration's Iraq war.

Many liberal critics have excoriated "Jarhead" for not being anti-war enough, claiming that its lack of a political agenda makes it "pointless." If only "Jarhead" condemned the first George Bush's war, then the public would turn against the second George Bush's war! Or something... That the two conflicts were opposite in origin and execution has escaped the notice of most film reviewers.

Although neocon keyboard combatants like John Podhoretz have conversely denounced "Jarhead" as not pro-war enough, the film isn't likely to hurt the USMC's 2006 recruiting drive. It's not particularly bloody, but it may set a new low for vulgar language and gross-out humor. You wouldn't want "Jarhead's" Marines dating your daughter, but it's reassuring to learn that America still produces lads this lively.

As many irate Marines have protested, you should take Swofford's Desert Storm tales with a grain of sand. He appears to have embellished what he actually saw during his five months of waiting in Saudi Arabia and four days of fighting in Kuwait with decades of grunt lore, such as the popular legend about the unfaithful Marine's vengeful wife who mailed him a videotape of "The Deer Hunter." When he popped it in to show his buddies, they discovered she had spliced in a home porno movie of herself consorting with the guy next door. Of course, in Swofford's punched-up version, the other Marines want to watch it again.

The screenplay by William Broyles Jr., author of two fine engineers-solving-problems scripts for Tom Hanks in "Apollo 13" and "Cast Away," thankfully tones down Swofford's Holden Caulfield-like self-pity and stresses his riotous dialogue. Broyles can't do much with the book's lack of a plot, so "Jarhead" ends up resembling a documentary on steroids more than a conventional movie.

Having been a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam, Broyles should be embarrassed, though, by his ridiculous live-fire training scene in which novice snipers supposedly must slither under machine gun fire only two feet off the ground, with predictably fatal results. (In reality, the trainer's gun is set so it can't fire lower than eight feet high.)

British stage director Sam Mendes, whose only previous films were the overrated "American Beauty" and the beautiful but ponderous "Road to Perdition," wasn't an obvious choice to film "Jarhead," but his English approach to acting pays off because the USMC is perhaps the most theatrical institution this side of the Atlantic. Marine sergeants are not sincerely inarticulate mumblers in the Marlon Brando Method tradition. Instead, like British stage stars, drill instructors are the heirs to a rich heritage of tricks of the trade for creating larger-than-life personae.

Under Mendes's guidance, Jamie Fox, an Oscar-winner for "Ray," takes his hanging curveball role as the tough but caring sergeant, an obscenely eloquent yet religious family man who loves war, and pounds it out of the park.

Rated R for pervasive language, some violent images, and strong sexual content.


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