Sunday, November 06, 2005

REV: Jarhead

directed by Sam Mendes
with Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Saarsgard, Chris Cooper, Jamie Foxx

I knew going in that there was a critical backlash of sorts about this film -- labelled everying from vapid to senseless, it had occupied a non-space in my need-to-watch pool. Normally i'll avoid a film getting those kind of raves -- at least until the DVDs arrive. I chose to see this anyway -- in part because i've been starved for a good big screen pic, and podunk here has been bereft of anything worth seeing for some time (and sadly, this was the highest rated of the seven films currently showing here) -- but also because i have become a full-fledged Saarsgard fan. I was itching to see if he's continued his string of superb portrayals.

And so with a mix of critical trepidation, and hope that a performance, or more, might shine, i went anyway.

It was well worth my time. Let's start with where so many critics got off the train -- the supposed shallowness (and to be fair, by the Tomatometer at, where you should shop for reviews if you don't already -- link on the sidebar -- it's about 50-50 between critics who like it and those who don't).

Coming from the personal memoir of the same name, the film chronicles Anthony Swofford's life as a grunt Marine picked to go through specialized training to become a killing machine -- a scout sniper. That is, either you're so worthless that you're instantly expendable, or you're damn good, both as a shot and as a calculating machine that has no qualms creating "pink mist" -- blowing a guy's brains out at 1000-yards.

The Marines quite literally get their machine -- really machines -- in Gyllenhaal, playing Swofford, and his spotter, Saarsgard (what's the odds of having two guys play leads who both have double-a's in their names?). Only they endure six months of duty in Iraq Part I without ever getting to squeeze off a shot -- no kills for them or anyone in their group, though death is all around. What the Marines end up with is a little bit of insanity. Gyllenhaal blows his cork and nearly kills a squadmember, Saarsgard saves his for back home -- we don't know if he overdosed or what but the clear implication is he sniped himself.

The issue, for the filmmaker at least, is to create, in an hour and a half, the conditions that lead to the winding tight of these guys and their subsequent implosion.

I suppose the critics want six months of talk among a bunch of semi-literate but quite intelligent guys as they discuss Gyllenhaal's ever-present Albert Camus, or perhaps late-night in-the-bunk emo sessions as each discusses his fear of death, or maybe the one-on-one's as each finds out his girlfriend's been with someone else.

Those go on you know, they are atually the long moments that ease daily life in a place where you can't just cruise to the 7-11 for a pack of camels, or find a quiet corner or room to yourself to work out frustration. But the film is about the building of that very inability to escape and what it does to young minds, minds that are never prepared, ever, for war.

So, as these guys traipse through the crusty desert, seemingly always one berm away from the war, they endure not only the boredom, the scorpions, the lack of action, and stifling nothingness, but they have to endure each other. And therein lies madness.

It struck me early on that the military juvenilia that bombards you at the beginning of the movie -- the every-other-word-cussword, the graphic putdowns, the new names for things you thought were already well-enough named -- was a bit on the heavy side. Not because it doesn't go on, but because it really isn't that prevalent. There is real conversation that takes place besides taunts and putdowns and demeaning-as-process. But there seemed to be a focus on it, and a heavy focus.

Aaah, i thought, he's making these guys raw so that we can see them grow. I thought. But no, they don't grow, in this regard at least. One could argue that a couple even regress. By the time the film was over i was so numb from the cussing, the sheer onslaught of ugly imagery, that i left thinking that was about the lone criticism i would have of the film (amongst a handful of minor technical quibbles). But after a night of thinking about it, i think differently.

Yes, it was out of balance. Absolutely. But the film benefits from that imbalance. Again, the objective should have been to create that slow trail to insanity, but with little time to accomplish it. And so while condensing six months of hell into an hour an half was possible visually, it had to also be so aurally. And i think Mendes nailed it. On the road to crazy one doesn't dwell on the little pleases and thank-you's or the grand late-night discourse's on life-after. It's the insults, and the wrongs-done, the what-could-i-have-been-in-the-states' that carve holes in the brain and camp there. Ultimately war, and this film, are numbing.

Is it vacuous at the end? Are there no grand statements on life there? I would ask, how vacuous must it have been to train and seek a target for six months only to have your plug pulled? What grand statement need there be except -- hey, this stuff happens?

Is this a great movie? Is it even a great war movie? It doesn't quite stick in my craw the way a Platoon or Apocalypse Now does -- but those were about the war of my generation, they have resonance to me personally. And how many folks claim Iraq I/Desert Storm as a war anyway? Much less the war that defines their generation? I don't have that answer.

The performances were excellent about across the board. Jamie Foxx was superb. Chris Cooper is a guy i sometimes think is incredible -- this was not one of his incredibles, he looks just a little bit light in the pockets to pull off his tough-guy-in-the-desert persona.

Jake Gyllenhaal i think is becoming a fine, fine actor. Donnie Darko is one of my favorite all-time films, but i'm not sure he was excellent in it. Here he borders on excellent/superb. I think he really pulls off Swofford here as was intended. If the movie doesn't die a critical death, he may get some mention for this.

Saarsgard is, i think, overdue for some big recognition. I thought his turn in Shattered Glass was magnificent. And here he tops it. Unfortunately, Jarhead is a Shattered Glass kind of film in that i think it may not be on very many people's radar. Competition in the next couple of months may spell out what chance these guys have for awards. Maybe there's a chance. I think Saarsgard's are enhanced by the fact that he'll be up for a Supporting Actor nomination in whatever, and he very nearly had as much face time as Gyllenhaal. He was remarkable every second.

As a brief aside, one of the interesting things about making films is seeing something you think you invented/created show up somewhere else. Diogenes/Dionysus has an odd life for me in that i wrote the script several years ago -- i considered it then, and do now, a completely original product -- and so unlike anything else that i thought it could actually catch everyone asleep. Of course, since that time, i have seen little snippets of things in a dozen films that i thought/hoped were mine. And of course, they are. Especially in the way i have them combined. But in Jarhead there is a fairly critical plot element that i believe is mine first, that is used there, that knocked me breathless when i saw it. I'm not exposing it here, because i don't think anyone else will ever connect them or even see that it's the same thing. But i saw it, and it blew me away in the film. That tells me that it should, in my telling of it, have the same effect. Can i say yippee . . . ?

I have a couple of quibbles. I am a SFX freak as some folks will know. The ethereal CG grandiose background kind of thing irks me -- we've already come to accept it as a kind of style, but i don't like it. It doesn't look real. Part of the problem is that it always has perspective problems. You'd think that in all of the great studios they would have one guy with some math in their background who could get that right. But nooooo. Not many opportunities here, but a couple of them are awful.

Secondly, and i can't believe Industrial Light & Magic is responsible for this, but they're who got credit -- the machine gun bursts at the final bonfire are simply ludicrous. Fire is still the FX that no one has gotten right. NO ONE. But gun bursts shouldn't be difficult to fake well enough to get by with. These are just plain awful.

There was a goofy continuity problem that someone should have caught and would have been easily fixable also. At one point Jamie Foxx's character is talking while the camera is off him, then it pans to him and he turns to the camera and stands -- the voice is still going, ut he's not talking. Two seconds of delay would have fixed that.

My last comment has to do with military cooperation on Jarhead. It's common knowledge that you have to have a flattering script to get cooperation from the US military -- by which i mean free helicopters, tanks, gunships, etc. I am presuming from this film that they had cooperation or else they spent a lot of money. And that means that some brass committee thought that this film depicted the Marines in a good light. Or else they knew that the 25 16/17-year-olds in the theater last night would be hoo-awing all night, whooping and hollering, and going "yeah" every time someone spit out a derogatory slur or they showed a dead Iraqi.

Which means this is a recruiting film.

Coupled with the trailer for Annapolis before the show i felt like i was in a high school cafeteria on career day.

I guess it was inevitable that in the midst of a real war of a generation, there would be pro-military films on someone's production line.


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