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Military movie succeeds in spite of itself

It usually isn't hard to tell a war movie from an anti-war movie. If the combat experience is presented as a rousing boys' adventure in which the good guys stomp the bad guys, and clear-cut goals are met, then it's a war movie (e.g., practically every WWII film ever made). But if the combat experience is presented as a murky affair in which objectives are unclear, the good guys die (or, worse, deteriorate mentally) and nothing tangible gets accomplished, then it's an anti-war movie (e.g., practically every Vietnam War film ever made, John Wayne's The Green Berets excepted).

Jarhead doesn't fall under either classification. If anything, it's the pioneer in a new genre: the semi-war movie. With steadfast determination, it refuses to take sides, name names, push agendas or do anything that might potentially inspire the wrath of moviegoers, Oscar voters, Op-Ed editors, war hawks or pacifists. In adapting Anthony Swofford's book, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and scripter William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13) apparently felt they had to be totally sympathetic to the travails of the foot soldiers -- in this case, the Marine "jarheads" who were dispatched to Iraq in the early 90s to take part in the Gulf War. For the most part, they succeed, even though the structure of the piece is frequently problematic.

In much the same fashion as Stanley Kubrick's brilliant Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead opens stateside, as we see the basic training of "Swoff" (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he attempts to mold himself into a military man of steel. There's the verbally abusive D.I. (who, let's face it, comes across as a pussycat compared to Jacket's fearsome R. Lee Ermey), the hazing by the other grunts, the rigorous workouts, etc. From here, it's off to the Middle East, where these young men -- pumped up by visions of macho exploits, bonding with their phallic rifles and whipped into a feeding frenzy by a screening of Apocalypse Now's Wagnerian interlude (a scene whose absurdist elements completely elude the whooping Marines) -- are ready to kill countless Iraqis for God and country.

Only things don't quite work out that way. Instead, their enemy turns out to be boredom, as days become weeks become months of endless waiting in the punishing desert heat. To pass the time, they toss footballs, repeatedly inspect their weapons, and gulp down lots of water to remain hydrated. And when Desert Shield eventually transforms into Desert Storm, there's a risk, as one soldier notes, that the battle is so fast-paced that the US jets will have already settled the score before the ground troops can even get within a couple of miles of the skirmish.

Mendes' film, therefore, is about warriors without a war, young men who have been primed to kill and are then denied that opportunity, leaving them antsy, unfulfilled and still ready to shoot their loads (the movie's awash in masturbatory motifs). Mendes and his actors (including the ever-reliable Peter Sarsgaard as Swoff's best friend Troy) do an admirable job of punching across this frustration, an overbearing anxiety further complicated by the men's worries that their wives and girlfriends back home are cheating on them 24/7.

Our sympathies are with these men even if we don't exactly endorse the reasons for their mental morass. Raised in an American society that often glorifies the killing impulse, it's no wonder these macho lunks view the taking of another life as the noblest of all aspirations, but it's hard for more level-headed viewers to share that outlook. And while these soldiers feel that any semblance of action would be preferable to the oppressive boredom, it's hard to imagine them holding onto that opinion after losing an arm or a leg or a comrade in a combat zone.

Jarhead does its best to remain apolitical through and through: One soldier (Lucas Black) who correctly states that the only reason the US is over there is to protect the oil is quickly silenced by another character who declares, "Fuck politics!" Yet the very nature of the piece insures that correlations can be made to the current debacle in the Middle East. It's frighteningly easy to imagine George W. jerking off over a scene that lovingly lingers on the charred remains of bombed Iraqis, and it's equally easy to imagine him blubbering into his hankie at the sight of burning oil fields. Both Bushes viewed young Americans as expendable cannon fodder, both placed political posturing over the best interests of the country, and both were too incompetent to capture their primary prey (Bush Sr. with Saddam, Bush Jr. with Osama). Sam Mendes may have been reluctant to offend the war hawks, but history can't afford a similar luxury: It's too busy repeating itself to balk.

UPDATE: No sooner had last issue's "2005 Holiday Film Preview" hit the stands than we were alerted to date changes for two of the titles. Bee Season, slated for November 23, is now a limited release with no specific Charlotte opening date. And All the King's Men, originally scheduled for December 16, will bypass this year altogether. It's now set to open sometime in 2006.

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