In the Eye of Desert Storm

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Hooah: Jamie Foxx in Jarhead

Good to hear them again—the marine drill sergeants' obscene arias of disgust and contempt (see also Full Metal Jacket and Heartbreak Ridge) as they begin the process of stripping young American males of their individuality, any tendency they might have to think for themselves or harbor the odd, rebellious thought. These early passages in every modern combat movie are designed to induce a state of shock and awe in its viewers, soften us up for the horrors to come. We laugh, we cringe, we begin looking forward to the transformation of these innocents into lean, mean killing machines.

And, indeed, that happens, more or less on schedule, in Sam Mendes's Jarhead, which is based on Anthony Swofford's best-selling memoir of his service in the 1991 Gulf War. There is, however, this important difference between this film and its predecessors: these guys never get to fire a shot. They are all dressed up in stifling combat gear but they have no place to go, except over the next berm (or dune) where they find nothing but more emptiness, more sand, which, if you want to get all fancy and symbolic about it, matches the emptiness inside them.

So driven by their stoic leader (the excellent Jamie Foxx) they play brutal football games in full field regalia. And await the inevitable Dear John letters from home (one of which arrives in the form of a video showing a wife having it off with a civilian back home). And set their tent afire with some careless cookery.

When they finally meet the enemy long-range bombs have already burned them to various grotesque crisps. Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his buddy, Troy (a wonderfully cool, emotionally hidden Peter Sarsgaard), who are snipers, come close to actually doing something—killing a pair of Iraqi officers holed up in an airfield control tower—but at the last moment one of their own senior officer swans in and countermands the orders. In short, Swofford and his unit have nothing to show for the half year they spend in the eye of Desert Storm.

Except that this phony war has made "men" of them—if you define manhood in its most primitive form: as bonding on the basis of mutual sweating, swearing, swaggering under impossible conditions. But that, in its way, is the genius of this movie. Mendes, whose previous films (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) bear no resemblance to Jarhead, except in the well-calculated expertise of his direction—lots of handheld cameras in constant motion here—is totally non-judgmental, entirely unsentimental. Despite writing his book and seeing it made into this intense and absurdist movie, Swofford seems only to have taken one thing away from his experiences, which is that in some way Corps values are permanently his core values, no matter what else he may do in life. A humanist might argue that there is something pathetic in that. But the best war movies—and this one, despite its being overlong and repetitive, is among them—hold that men fight (or in this case, are ready to fight) not for causes, but to survive and to help their comrades do the same. In that simplicity lies salvation. Anything more complicated will likely drive you crazy or get you killed.