Monday, November 14, 2005


My high school history teacher, Mr. Davis, looked like Boris Karloff with a crewcut. I remember that about him and something else: His favorite saying was, "Use of profanity is proof of a poor vocabulary." I'm betting Mr. Davis was never in the military.

We first meet Swoff (Swofford, the original writer of this autobiographical story) at his first Marine command, and his environment is in-your-face, violent, real. He's had more education than a lot of these jarheads, but it does him no good here, gives him no respite. The point is not lost on us that the staff sergeant (played with cool intelligence by Jamie Foxx) finds Swoff reading Camus' The Stranger in the head. Gyllenhaal's Swoff is the stranger here, looking for his own spiritual path, and can't figure out how he got himself into this mess.

Many of us make choices based on what we left behind. In some brilliant but quick flashbacks, we discover he's running as fast as he can from a crazy mother and a too-intense military father. The military, as it has done so well throughout history, takes the single man, tears him down, teaches him how to react and what to say, and then rebuilds him into the Marine image. That is, if the process doesn't break him. And we watch as Swoff learns how to live, how to survive, and how to speak their obscene-laced language. He becomes a Marine, good and bad and all that infers.

The acting is superb, and because you actually believe these men can fight, you're training right along with them in the mud in basic and in the desert during Desert Storm. Gyllenhaal breaks out of his nice-kid-with-the-doe-eyes roles, and gives us a good foundation for the story as it washes over him. Foxx is electric, and your eyes are instantly on him when he comes into the scene. Peter Sarsgaard's Marine is level-headed, insane, angry -- he gives a career-making performance.

Jarhead is jarring and intense in some scenes, but halting and boring in others, particularly in places (like Saudi Arabia) where we're meant to be bored because THEY were. For the viewer, it's at once entertaining and fascinating, but for all of those moments, we're treated to moments of slow motion. All of which, Swoff would argue, is because it's true.

Is this an anti-war movie? Is this merely a documentary? No to both questions. It just is. In many ways it's heartbreaking, because we have to do this to young men to get them ready for war. To make them machines that self-automate in times of crisis. And, as Swoff reminds us at the end, who never forget their training, never forget they're Marines.

Hoo-rah. Thumb's up.


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