The telltale moment in Sam Mendes’s movie version of Anthony Swofford’s book, “Jarhead,” comes early on, when the young recruit, “Swoff” (Jake Gyllenhaal), is sitting on the toilet reading a translation of Albert Camus’s “L’Etranger.” A Marine drill sergeant ridicules him for his choice of reading matter, pronouncing the author’s name as “Came-us.”
Get it? Swoff is not only the autobiographical presence in this film, he has also cast himself in the familiar role of the sensitive soul surrounded by coarse and brutal men who are less intelligent than he and therefore less able to understand the “reality” behind their experiences as Marines in the first Gulf War.
That word, reality, has a power like no other to fascinate writers and journalists as well as filmmakers. Of course, if the reality of soldiering were readily accessible, there would be no reason for extra-smart people like Messrs. Swofford and Mendes to tease it out for us – to write, film, and ratiocinate their way to the presumptively hidden truth behind a myriad of illusions.
Just look, for instance, at the scene in “Jarhead” in which a stateside journalist is brought in to observe Swoff’s unit, and the men are carefully instructed in what to say to her – and what not to say. As a demonstration of their readiness for any threat, they are instructed to play a game of football – in the desert at midday – in their CBW suits and hoods. The game ends with their stripping off the suits and engaging in a simulated sex act as the journalist is hustled away.
How naive she was to think that they were telling her what they really thought! Or that they were cheerful, clean-living Boy Scouts who were only too glad to show her their indifference to hardship. Her fleeting glimpse into the reality of the men’s lives is extended and prolonged by the much wiser, much more clued-in filmmakers for our benefit.
The result, however, is an extra measure of that vanity of opinion to which we are all too subject. Those who in their own conceit are wiser and smarter and more clued-in than other people are obviously less likely than other people to be persuadable that their take on reality is a partial one, or in need of any correction.
That’s why “Jarhead” – the name alludes to the Marine haircut – is itself such a naive film. Its own vanity about knowing certain things about the military life – its violence and brutality, its coarseness and cynicism, its cruelty and bloodlust, its enormously powerful but mostly repressed and surreptitious sexuality – blinds it to the other sorts of reality traditionally associated with soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines; things like patriotism, honor, bravery, nobility, and self-sacrifice.
And that’s all without even getting into the matter of why the armed forces are deployed in the first place. Messrs. Swofford and Mendes both seem to take for granted the typical Hollywood anti-warrior’s casual assumption that Desert Storm was all a matter of “blood for oil,” but not to be particularly interested in the fact.”F- politics!” as Swoff’s best buddy, Allen Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), puts it.
Well, okay. Let politics be f-ed, and let us confine ourselves to the patriotism, honor, etc., of the men themselves. If it would be naive to think these things are the whole story about life in the armed forces, the only reality, why is it not equally naive to believe that they are not part of the story at all – that, in effect, it is the negative things that are the whole story?
Well, maybe not quite the whole story. There are a couple of moments when the picture suggests there might be something positive about the world it describes.
One comes when the tough-talking but sympathetic Sergeant Siek (Jamie Foxx) briefly steps out of character and reveals to Swoff that he could have had an easy life as a partner in his brother’s drywall business in California. Why doesn’t he take up this opportunity then? “Because I love this job,” he tells him. “Who else gets a chance to see s-like this?”
So then, there’s something good about being a Marine. You get to have adventures. Then, right at the end of the film, Swoff turns briefly sentimental. His voice-over tells us that, though he has long been out of the Corps, learning from his college “writing” courses how to feel even more superior to his fellow Marines, he also feels a mysterious sense of solidarity with them. We guess that’s something else good: the camaraderie.
But the same could have been said about the Wehrmacht or the hordes of Attila the Hun. There is no honor in being a member of a criminal gang, at least not for those who are not members of it themselves. Reduced to its essence, this is all the movie has to tell us: There is no honor in being a United States Marine, even though it is kind of fun sometimes, especially when you get to shoot people.
That Allen Troy goes berserk after he and Swoff are deprived of the one and only chance at a “kill” afforded them by the too-short war tells us all we need to know about this putative reality of the profession of arms in our times; it’s a form of displaced sexuality.
Those who are already believers in that reality, and in their own powers of intellect in penetrating the veil of illusion to get at it, are this movie’s intended audience. The rest of us, those who continue to harbor any vestiges of honor and respect for the American military man, will prefer to skip it.