Jarhead: Collector’s Edition
March 12, 2006
Anticipation was high for Jarhead (2005), the cinematic adaptation of Anthony Swifford’s book of the same name about his experiences as a U.S. foot soldier in the first Persian Gulf War. The reaction to the movie was underwhelming to say the least as critics savaged it and audiences stayed away. Something was definitely in the air as the film also failed to pick up any nominations or awards at any of the important ceremonies (Golden Globes, Oscars, et al). Was the film really that bad or had it just been marketed wrong? Or, was it simply the victim of our current political climate?
Right from the get-go, Jarhead establishes a satirical tone as “Don’t Worry Be Happy” plays over footage of Private Anthony “Swoff” Swofford (Gyllenhaal) as he arrives at the training camp barracks of his new platoon and is promptly and violently initiated by his fellow Marines. He is subsequently put in his place by his superior, Staff Sgt. Sykes (a no-nonsense Foxx) who also teaches Swofford and his comrades how to be efficient soldiers, specifically training to be snipers. Swoff is soon paired up with the cool and collected Troy (Sarsgaard) as his spotter.
They watch the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) for inspiration and its like pornography for these guys as they cheer on the carnage proving that they have become fully indoctrinated by their instructors to be killing machines. And then Iraq invades Kuwait and 5,000 U.S. troops (including Swofford and his company) are called in NOT to engage the Iraqi army but guard a bunch of oil fields out in the middle of a vast desert.
They kill time by conducting numerous training exercises and maneuvers. Predictably, boredom and loneliness sets in. They are even ordered to only tout the party line to the media and made to do absurd things, like play a game of football in their biological warfare gear in 100+ degree weather to show the press how “effective” they are (?!). However, most of their gear doesn’t work properly in some way. The isolation of being out in the middle of nowhere, doing nothing and being cut off from their loved ones for prolonged periods of time really puts the zap on all of them in one way or the other. The more time these guys spend over there, the more their relationships back in the World begin to suffer.
Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent as an everyman soldier that begins to crack under the pressure. He is particularly chilling in the scene where his character snaps and threatens a fellow soldier (Geraghty) who messed up on night watch duty (that Swofford was supposed to be doing). Gyllenhaal successfully goes to a dark place in a way quite unlike he’s ever done before. Peter Sarsgaard plays Troy as a quietly intense enigma whose whole life is the Marine Corp. He provides another strong supporting performance essaying yet another completely different role from anything he’s done before.
Jarhead is a film filled with striking images captured wonderfully by director of photography Roger Deakins. For example, Swofford and his platoon come across oil wells burning out of control, oil raining down on them. At night, they continue to burn providing the only light, and coupled with downpour of oil, looks like some kind of nightmarish vision of hell.
Critics complained that nothing happened in the movie but wasn’t that the point? The first Gulf War was typified by highly trained soldiers ready to kill who, for the most part, did nothing because it was predominantly a conflict fought in the air by extensive bombing that ended the war as quickly as it did. Jarhead encapsulates this notion well in a scene where Swoff and Troy are ordered to sniper two high ranking Iraqi officers and at the penultimate moment when they are given the go-ahead to kill they are ordered to stand down so that an air strike can come in and literally steal their thunder. This scene pretty much sums up the experience for a lot of soldiers over there.
Sure, there are the unavoidable comparisons to the boot camp sequences in Full Metal Jacket (1987) to the ones in Jarhead but so what? No film lives in a vacuum and those scenes are only a small part of the movie and it soon settles into its own rhythm. The film that Jarhead most lives under the shadow of is Three Kings (1999) with its mixture of biting satire and horrific imagery of the madness of war, except that Jarhead ends where Three Kings begins. This is a film about humanity (or, rather the loss of it) and not an epic battle of good vs. evil that perhaps people were expecting. Jarhead is purposely anti-climatic. We won the war but what did we do to win it and why? And more importantly, what were we doing there? By that extension, we should also be asking the same questions about its sequel – one that we are still fighting and paying for.
“Swoff’s Fantasies” feature four deleted scenes with optional commentary by director Sam Mendes and editor Walter Murch. This is footage of Swofford’s inner, fantasy life that was shown briefly in the actual movie but more was actually shot (and even more figured in the book), including a moment where he imagines his Drill Instructor (MacDonald) chewing him out while wearing a dress, a fantasy where Swoff imagines what he’d really like to say to the press and so on. Mendes regrets cutting these sequences because they were so integral to the book.
“News Interviews in Full” features more footage of Swoff and his platoon being interviewed by the media with optional commentary by Mendes and Murch. The director mentions that he let the actors adlib their answers to the pre-arranged questions. We really get to see how distinctive each character is and how rich their backstories are – all created by the actors themselves.
Also included are 11 deleted scenes with optional commentary by Mendes and Murch. Of note is a scene with Sam Rockwell who plays Swoff’s uncle and is in the Marines. It is quite good and provides motivation for why Swoff joins the Corp. Too bad it was cut but the filmmakers didn’t want to begin the film in that way. Mendes and Murch do an excellent job of explaining why this footage was cut and are candid in what stuff just didn’t work.
There is an audio commentary by Mendes who admits that he had a tough time not evoking the boot camp material from Full Metal Jacket in his own movie. So, he tried to deviate a little in the way he shot it. He praises Gyllenhaal’s willingness and desire to push himself to his absolute limit whenever possible. Mendes didn’t want to overthink the camerawork or go for the meticulously staged compositions as he did with his previous movies and instead opted for a looser look with extensive hand-held camerawork. This is a very strong track as he defends his choices and tells all kinds of good anecdotes.
There is another commentary track by screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. and author Anthony Swofford. Broyles served in the Vietnam War and so these two war veterans talk with absolute authority about the authenticity of this movie. They try to explain what it means to be a Marine and go into great detail about what their experiences were like. Naturally, they talk about the differences between the book and the film. It’s great to listen to Broyles and Swofford – two men who’ve been through what we are watching.